4406 entries. 94 themes. Last updated December 26, 2016.

Writing / Palaeography / Calligraphy / Epigraphy Timeline


2,800,000 BCE – 8,000 BCE

Early Attempt to Record Information or Early Art? Circa 75,000 BCE – 73,000 BCE

Pieces of ochre rock decorated with geometric patterns found at Blombos Cave in South Africa, nearly 200 miles from Cape Town, in 2002, have been dated to the Middle Stone Age, equivalent to the European Middle Paleolithic.

"This ocher plaque has marks that may have been used to count or store information. A close-up look at the object shows that the markings are clearly organized. This systematic pattern suggests to some researchers that the markings represent information rather than decoration" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/blombos-ocher-plaque, accessed 05-10-2010).
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The Advantages of Orally Transmitted Traditions Circa 30,000 BCE

Dependent as we are on written culture we should not lose sight of the advantages of orally transmitted traditions:

"Some might argue that, without writing, the same beliefs could not have prevailed over such a long period of time, but in reality, oral traditions are far more faithfully passed on than the written word. A written account can be open to multiple interpretations, distortions, and transformations, depending on the time and situation, economic imperatives, or the whims of political or religious leaders. Orally transmitted traditions, in contrast, must be rigorously and accurately passed on in order to survive in all their subtlety, and in the smallest of details. Furthermore, the written word, thought to be the surer and safer means of communication, is not only less reliable but also more permeable to outside aggression than are the more secret codes of an oral system. During the time of the Roman Empire, for instance, the fact that the Celts were still 'prehistoric'—meaning that they hadn't recorded their history, ways, and beliefs— made it much harder for the conquering Romans to devise an appropriate strategy to subjugate them" (Desdemaines-Hugon, Stepping-Stones. A Journey Through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordogne [2010] 75).

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The Ishango Bone, Possibly One of the Oldest Calendars 25,000 BCE – 20,000 BCE

The Ishango Bone, a notched talley stick discovered at Ishango in the Congo (Zaire) in 1960 by Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt, and now preserved in the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, is one of the oldest known objects that may contain logical or mathematical carvings. It may be simply a talley stick.

Alexander Marschak, an independent scholar, argued that it represents a six-month lunar calendar. In 1970 Marshack published his innovative Notation dans les gravures du Paléolithique Supérieur. He argued that talley marks on certain bones represented a system of proto-writing, and proposed the controversial theory that notches and lines carved on certain Upper Paleolithic bone plaques were notation systems, specifically lunar calendars notating the passage of time. Using microscopic analysis, Marshack showed that seemingly random or meaningless notches on bone were sometimes interpretable as structured series of numbers. Marshack expanded upon these ideas in his book, The Roots of Civilization (1972). If Marshack's interpretation is correct, notched bones such as these may be, in the words of John Eccles, the earliest "conceptual performance of homo sapiens." Alternatively they may be a yet to be understood method of recording information, or something else.

Other supposed "lunar calendars" from about the same date have been discovered on ojbects such as the Isturitz Baton, the Blanchard bone, and possibly in cave paintings in Lascaux and elsewhere.

Eccles, Evolution of the Brain: Creation of the Self (1989) reproducing the Blanchard bone on the cover; discussion on 135-36.

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Perhaps the Oldest Map in the World 10,000 BCE

Map-making appears to predate written language. What may be the oldest map in the world, discovered in Ukraine in 1966, may date from about 10,000 BCE. Inscribed on a mammoth tusk, the map was found in Mezhirich, Ukraine. It has been interpreted to show dwellings along a river.

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In Mesopotamia Neolithic Tokens are Developed for "Concrete" Counting Circa 8,000 BCE

According to the theory about the origins of counting and writing developed by Denise Schmandt-Besserat, around 8000 BCE the Palaeolithic notched tallies representing the simplest form of counting — in one-to-one correspondence — were superseded by Neolithic clay tokens in various geometric forms suited for concrete counting invented in Mesopotamia. The significance of these tokens "as an operational device in Mesopotamian bureaucracy," was first grasped by archaeologist Pierre Amiet, teacher of Schand-Besserat in 1972 with respect to tokens found in Nuzi, an ancient Mesopotamian city southwest of Kirkuk in modern Al Ta'amim Governorate of Iraq, located near the Tigris river. (Schmandt-Besserat, Before Writing I [1992] ix.) 

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8,000 BCE – 1,000 BCE

The Earliest Known Fermented Beverage Circa 7,000 BCE

Chemical analyses of ancient organic compounds absorbed into pottery jars from the early Neolithic village of Jiahu in Henan province in China show that a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit (hawthorn fruit and/or grape) was being produced about 7000 BCE. The rice was probably prepared for fermentation by mastication or malting,

"This prehistoric drink paved the way for unique cereal beverages of the proto-historic second millennium B.C., remarkably preserved as liquids inside sealed bronze vessels of the Shang and Western Zhou Dynasties. These findings provide direct evidence for fermented beverages in ancient Chinese culture, which were of considerable social, religious, and medical significance, and help elucidate their earliest descriptions in the Shang Dynasty oracle inscriptions.

"Throughout history and around the world, human societies at every level of complexity discovered how to make fermented beverages from sugar sources available in their local habitats. This nearly universal phenomenon of fermented beverage production is explained by ethanol's combined analgesic, disinfectant, and profound mind-altering effects. Moreover, fermentation helps to preserve and enhance the nutritional value of foods and beverages. Because of their perceived pharmacological, nutritional, and sensory benefits, fermented beverages thus have played key roles in the development of human culture and technology, contributing to the advance and intensification of agriculture, horticulture, and food-processing techniques. Among all strata of society, they have marked major life events, from birth to death, as well as victories, auspicious events, and harvests, etc. Rulers and “upper class” individuals with leisure and resources particularly were drawn to feasting on a grand scale, which often featured special fermented beverages served in and drunk from special vessels. In their most developed form, such celebrations were formalized into secular or religious ceremonies for the society at large.

"How does ancient China, one of the primal centers for the rise of human civilization, fit into this picture of fermented beverage production, conspicuous consumption, and celebratory and ritual activities that are so well documented archaeologically, historically, and ethnographically elsewhere? Based on the oracle inscriptions from the late Shang Dynasty [circa (ca.) 1200–1046 before Christ (B.C.)], the earliest texts from China, at least three beverages were distinguished: chang (an herbal wine), li (probably a sweet, low-alcoholic rice or millet beverage), and jiu (a fully fermented and filtered rice or millet beverage or “wine,” with an alcoholic content of probably 10–15% by weight). According to inscriptions, the Shang palace administration included officials who made the beverages, which sometimes were inspected by the king. Fermented beverages and other foods were offered as sacrifices to royal ancestors in various forms of bronze vessels, likely accompanied by elite feasting. Later documents, incorporating traditions from the Zhou period (ca. 1046–221 B.C.), describe another two beverages: luo (likely made from a fruit) and lao (an unfiltered, fermented rice or millet beverage or the unfermented wort).  

"A much earlier history for fermented beverages in China has long been hypothesized based on the similar shapes and styles of Neolithic pottery vessels to the magnificent Shang Dynasty bronze vessels, which were used to present, store, serve, drink, and ritually present fermented beverages during that period. By using a combined chemical, archaeobotanical, and archaeological approach, we present evidence here that ancient Chinese fermented beverage production does indeed extend back nearly nine millennia. Moreover, our analyses of unique liquid samples from tightly lidded bronze vessels, dated to the Shang/Western Zhou Dynasties (ca. 1250–1000 B.C.), reveal that refinements in beverage production took place over the ensuing 5,000 years, including the development of a special saccharification (amylolysis) fermentation system in which fungi break down the polysaccharides in rice and millet" (Patrick E. McGovern, Juzhong Zhang, et al, "Fermented beverages of pre-and proto-historic China," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Published online before print December 8, 2004, 101, no. 51, December 21, 2004, 17593-17598.)

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In China, Possibly the Earliest Attempt at Writing Circa 6,600 BCE

In April 2003 Dr. Garman Harbottle of the Brookaven National Laboratory in Upton,  New York, and a team of archaeologists at the University of Science and Technology of China, in Hefei, Anhui province, announced that signs carved into what appeared to be 8600 year-old-tortoise shells may be the earliest written words.

Other authorities urge caution regarding the dating of this material, and question whether it is actually written language. The symbols may have been recorded in the late Stone Age or Neolithic Age. The symbols also bear similarities to the oracle bone script used thousands of years later during the Shang dynastry, but it is unclear that these symbols were part of an actual writing system. The BBC reported:

"The archaeologists have identified 11 separate symbols inscribed on the tortoise shells.

"The shells were found buried with human remains in 24 Neolithic graves unearthed at Jiahu in Henan province, Western China.

"The site has been radiocarbon dated to between 6,600-6200 BC" (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2956925.stm, accessed 07-11-2009).

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The Earliest Precursors to Writing in Egypt are Rock Drawings Circa 3,750 BCE

"Rock drawings constitute the earliest of the presursors to writing in Egypt. Drawings date from the earliest habitation of the Nile valley to the Islamic period, but the most salient early examples date to the Naqada I period (ca. 3750-3500 BC). They are located in the Eastern Desert along principle routes to the Red Sea (e.g., the Wadi Hammamat), and in the Western Desert along important land routes (e.g., the Theban Desert Road). Among the more popular motifs displayed are boats, animals and humanoid figures with feathers. Their composition is seemingly narrative, but their meaning is difficult to ascertain.

"There are rare examples of rock art of the late Predynastic period that can be interpreted. The 1936-1938 expeditions of Hans Winkler yielded a serekh (rectangular enclosure with the king's Horus name and a niched facade, surmounted by a falcon) of King Narmer (before ca. 3150 BC) at the site of Wadi el-Qash, in the Eatern Desert. This inscription is composed of an abbreviated version of King Narmer's name (only the nar-catfish is written; the mr-chisel has been left out) within a serekh, and constitue the only definite example of writing from this corpus at such an early date in Egyptian history.

"In general, during the Predynastic period the distinction between purely pictorial rock drawings and hieroglyphic writing is very hard to make. Although the motifs foreshadow those of subsequent periods of Egyptian history, aside from the example at Wadi-el-Qash there are no clear attempts at writing during the Predynastic period presently known to scholars. Instead, these spectacular scenes, carved into living rock, remain frustratingly ambiguous" (Elise V. Macarthur, "The Concept and Development of the Egyptian Writing System," IN: Woods (ed), Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 116-117, illustrating the drawing with serekh of King Narmer).

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One Theory of the Origins of Egyptian Hieroglyphs Circa 3,600 BCE – 3,200 BCE

One theory  of the origin of writing in Egypt proposes that Egyptian hieroglyphs evolved from symbols drawn on pottery produced by the Gerzeh culture (Gerzean, Girza, Jirzah), which was excavated from a predynastic Egyptian cemetery located along the west bank of the Nile and today named after al-Girza, the nearby present day town in Egypt.

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The Earliest Known Egyptian Writing Circa 3,320 BCE – 3,150 BCE

Ivory tags from tomb U-j.

Tomb U-j at Abydos. The Burial chamber is the broad room at the rear (southwest end) of the tomb.

Plan of tomb U-J.

Bone and ivory tags, pottery vessels, and clay seal impressions bearing hieroglyphs unearthed at Abydos, one of the most ancient cities of Upper Egypt, 300 miles south of Cairo, have been dated between 3320 and 3150 BCE, making them the oldest known examples of Egyptian writing.

The tags, each measuring 2 by 1 1/2 centimeters and containing between one and four glyphs, were discovered in the late 20th century in Tomb U-j of Umm el Qu'ab, the necropolis of the Predynastic and Early Dynastic kings by excavators from the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo led by Günter Dreyer. Tomb U-j may hold the remains of predynastic ruler Scorpion I (Serket I). The discoveries in Tomb U-j were first published by Dreyer, Ulrich Hartung, and Frauke Pupenmeier in Umm el-Qaab. Volume 1: Das prädynastische Königsgrab U-j und seine frühen Schriftzeugnisse (1998).

"Tomb U-j is best known for three distinctive forms of administrative record keeping in the form of ink-inscribed vessels, sealings, and tags. The size of the tomb, its contents, and the amount of labor its construction and assemblage would have required has led many scholars to propose that this tomb belonged to a proto-ruler who reigned over a sizable territory by the Naqada III period. . . .

"The written evidence from Tomb U-j, in particular the tags, probably denotes quantities of good, and localities in Egypt and beyond. The Egyptian writing system had already undergone a number of important developments by the time of Tomb U-j, which have not yet been recovered, or have not survived to modern times. Linguistic terminology makes it psosible to identify the various units of language that helped to transform communication in early Egypt from merely pictorial expression to speech writing, which is important in identifying the nature of early graphic material:

"1) Logograms: symbols representing specific words

"2) Phonograms: symbols representing specific sounds

"3) Determinatives: symbols used for classifying words

"Moreover, writing on the tags shows that the Egyptian writing system had adopted the rebus principle, which broadened the meaning of symbols to include their homophones—words with the same sound but different definitions. . . ." (Elise V. Macarthur, "The Concept and Development of the Egyptian Writing System" IN: Woods (ed), Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Middle East and Beyond [2010] 120; the book illustrates many of the objects from Tomb U-j; see also 138-143).

"Prior to the proper scientific excavation of Tomb U-j and its publication in 1998, the earliest clear instances of Egyptian writing dated back to the late Dynasty o (ca. 3200-3100 BC), a few centuries later than in southern Mesopotamia. It had long been known that later fourth-millenium Egypt witnessed sustained cultural contract with southern Mesopotamia and Susiana, tokens of which are found in elements of foeign iconography on Egyptian prestige objects, the adoption of the cylinder seal, and niched brick architecture. This led to the —always controversial— hypothesis that Egyptian writing may have originated as a result of cultural infleunce from Mesopotamia, whether through general awareness that writing was present elsewhere, or possibly through some actual knowledge of the workings of the Mesopotamian system. The distinctively indigenous nature of the Egyptian repertoire of signs was interpreted as a case of cultural adaptation of a foreign technology to local purposes. The hypothesis of a Mesopotamian influence on the emergence of Egyptian writing was at times embedded into a broader frame arguing that the original invention of writing, conceived of as a dramatic cultural achievement, would have occurred only once in human history, subsequently to spread elsewhere.

"As to the latter issue, the decipherment of Mayan glyphs and other New World scripts, and the realization that these represent actual writing rather than pictography, now proves otherwise. Simultaneously, a more refined understanding of the working of early writing in general demonstrates that writing may develop gradually, rather than dramatically, a good case in point being, pr-ecisely, the stage witnessed by Tomb U-j" (Andréas Stauder, "The Earliest Egyptian Writing" IN: Woods (ed) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 142).

http://archive.archaeology.org/9903/newsbriefs/egypt.html, accessed 01-13-2013).

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Cuneiform Writing in Mesopotomia Begins at Uruk in Association with the Development of Urban Life Circa 3,200 BCE – 2,900 BCE

Cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia began as a system of pictographs written with styli on clay tablets. The earliest cuneiform tablets. written in proto-cuneiform, were discovered in excavations of periods IV-III of the Eanna (Eana) district of Uruk (Warka) an ancient city of Sumer and later Babylonia, situated east of the present bed of the Euphrates river, some 30 km east of modern As-Samawah, Al-Muthannā, Iraq.

Between 1928 and 1976 approximately 5000 proto-cuneiform tablets were excavated at Uruk by the German Archaeological Institute.

"But these are not the only witnesses to the archaic script. Proto-cuneiform texts corresponding to the Uruk III [circa 3100 BCE] tablets have been found in the northern Babylonian sites of Jemdet Nasr, Khafajah, and Tell Uquair, testifying to the fact that the new technology spread quickly throughout Babylonia soon after its invention (in ancient Iran proto-cuneiform possibly inspired the proto-Elamite script ca. 3100 BC.) Illicit excavations since the 1990s account for several hundred additional texts, which possibly originate from the ancient Babylonian cities of Umma, Adab, and Kish. These texts have the advantage of being generally in better condition than those from Uruk, which, . . . represented discarded rubbish and thus are frequently fragmentary. To date the proto-cuneiform corpus numbers approximately six thousand tablets and fragments" (Christopher Woods, "The Earliest Mespotamian Writing," Chapter 2 of Woods, Teeter, Emberling (eds) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 35-36).

"The formation of an urban society and the innovations that came with it and which occurred for the first time in Uruk – a regional and supraregional centre – had an enormous impact on the entire Near-Eastern world. Very quickly, impressive temples and palaces sprung up, overshadowing the early grand architectural monuments in Uruk’s centre. A striking feature of these new buildings was their form, the ziggurat or stepped tower, which went on to become a defining element of ancient Near-Eastern temple architecture. The use of writing as an administrative tool also laid the foundations for science and learning in the ancient Near East. Very early on, lexical lists of terms and objects began to emerge – the first of their kind – and these were passed down the generations. Some of these records contain lists of city officials and specialist terms for occupations that provide an insight into a highly stratified society. Other records bear lexical lists of everyday objects, providing an insight into material culture. Particular importance was given very early on to observing the stars as a means to read the future. The ancient Babylonian palace of the ruler Sin-Kashid, built in the 2nd millennium BCE, exemplifies Uruk’s role as part of the ancient Near-Eastern empire. The palace served as both the seat of the ruler and as a commercial and administrative centre. It was here that diplomatic correspondence, legal contracts, surety bonds, and various court documents were set in writing. The site also served as a lively trading centre. Deliveries of raw materials were processed into valuable goods that denoted the owner’s status. The palace was also a place where writers were educated. The writers played a vital role in everyday life, as they compiled the correspondence and contractual agreements on behalf of the largely illiterate population" (http://www.uruk-megacity.de/index.php?page_id=6, accessed 01-13-2013).

"Writing emerged in the context of temple bureaucracy in the cities of the southern Iraqi marshes some time in the late fourth millennium BC. A tiny number of accountants used word signs (usually pictograms) and number signs to account for institutional assets — land, labor, animals — and their secondary products. They wrote on refined clay tablets, about the size of a credit card but around 1 cm thick, incising the signs for the objects they were recording with a pointed stylus and impressing the numbers with a cylindrical one. The front surface of the tablet was marked out into boxes, each one containing a single unit of accounting, logically ordered, with the results of calculations (total wages, predicted harvests, and so on) shown on the back. This writing was barely language-specific — it represented concrete nouns, numbers and little else, with only occasional clues to pronunciation and none at all to word order — and was known only to a handful of expert users. Its functionality was as yet so limited that it was used only to keep accounts, or to practice writing the words, numbers, and calculations needed for accountancy" (Robson, "The Clay Tablet Book in Sumer, Assyria, and Babylonia," Elliot & Rose [eds.] A Companion to the History of the Book [2007] 67-68.)

"Indeed that the vast majority of the earliest texts [discovered at Uruk and elsewhere in Mesopotamia] are administrative in nature suggests that the invention of writing was a response to practical social pressures—simply put, writing faciliated complex bureaucracy. It is important to stress in this connection that literature plays no role in the origins of writing in Mesopotomia. Religious texts, historical documents and letters are not included among the archaic text corpus either. Rather, these text genres arise relatively late, beginning in the middle of the third millennium, some seven hundred or more years after the first written evidence" (Woods, op. cit, 34). 

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One of the Earliest Surviving Examples of Narrative Relief Sculpture and Egyptian Hieroglyphs Circa 3,200 BCE

The Narmer Palette, one of the earliest surviving examples of narrative relief sculpture, was found during excavations at Nekhen (Greek: Ἱεράκων πόλις 'city of hawks', Strabo xvii. p. 817, transliterated as Hierakonpolis, Hieraconpolis, or Hieracompolis; Arabic: الكوم الأحمر‎ Al-Kom Al-Aħmar) in the 1890s. It is also one of the earliest surviving records of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Narmer Palette is preserved in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities (Egyptian Museum) Cairo.

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The Oldest-Known List of Titles and Occupations Circa 3,200 BCE

A proto-cuneiform clay tablet (VAT 15003) from the Eana (Eanna) district, Uruk IV period, preserved in The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, records the oldest-known version of a list of titles and occupations, known as the Standard Occupations List. 

"Such lists, known as 'lexical lists,' were used to train scribes and also served to organize knowledge. This scribal exercise from the early Uruk IV writing stage represents what was apparently a favorite version of such compilations. it content was copied many times in the subsequent Uruk III period (about 180 frams of it are preserved), and it was the model for numerous mofied and exapned forms of such lists. The popularity of such standardized lists is indicated by  the fact that they were repeatedly copied and recopied down through the Akkadian dynasty (twenty-third century BC) nearly a millennium after their creation" (Woods, Teeter, Emberling (eds) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] No. 46, with color images of obverse, reverse and a composite drawing of the archaic lexical list).

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The Earliest Inscription Written in Hieratic 3,200 BCE

Seal impression with the name of Narmer from Tarkhan.

The earliest known hieratic inscription, dating from about 3200 BCE, is the royal name Scorpion found on jars excavated at Tarkhan, just south of Cairo.

"The appearance of hieratic so early suggests that it was not a later adaptation of hieroglyphs but was developed alongside it. These early inscriptions were very brief and are found on vessels from burials. Typically they list only royal names and information about the contents of the vessels, frequently the place of origin" (Katheryn E. Bandy, "Hieratic" IN: Woods (ed) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 159).

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The Word Bibliography is Derived from a Greek Word for Papyrus Circa 3,100 BCE – 3,050 BCE

The pith of the papyrus plant was used in Egypt at least as far back as the First dynasty, for boats, mattresses, mats and as a writing surface. The Egyptian word papyrus, meaning "that of the king," may indicate a Pharonic monopoly in the period.

"The English word papyrus derives, via Latin, from Greek πάπυρος papyros. Greek has a second word for papyrus, βύβλος byblos (said to derive from the name of the Phoenician city of Byblos). The Greek writer Theophrastus, who flourished during the 4th century BC, uses papuros when referring to the plant used as a foodstuff and bublos for the same plant when used for non-food products, such as cordage, basketry, or a writing surface. The more specific term βίβλος biblos, which finds its way into English in such words as bibliography, bibliophile, and bible, refers to the inner bark of the papyrus plant. Papyrus is also the etymon of paper, a similar substance" (Wikipedia article on Papyrus, accessed 01-03-2010).

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The Earliest Autograph Signatures Circa 3,100 BCE

A pictographic list of titles and professions in ancient Sumeria (top), with the scribe's signature on the reverse side (bottom.) (View Larger)

Pictographic lexical lists written in ancient Sumerian pictographic script on clay tablets are the earliest literature known, and also the earliest known evidence of school and learning.

An example preserved in the Schøyen Collection (MS 2429/4 MS 2429/4) is a lexical list of 41 titles and professions, starting: Nam Gist Sita (Lord of the Mace), signed by the scribe Gar.Ama. 

The scribal signatures on this tablet and other lexical lists are the earliest autograph signatures extant.

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Education in the Bronze Age in the Middle East Circa 3,000 BCE – 1,200 BCE

Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE), the most famous of the early Babylonian kings. (View Larger)

"In the Bronze Age (c. 3000-1200 BC in the Middle East) the production and transmission of literate knowledge was cited in scribal schools. No doubt temples, courts and other places were also centers of intellectual and cultural exchange at this time, but they have not yet been identified and analyzed as such through the archaeological record. Second-millennium schools, on the other hand, have been carefully studied in recent years, enabling us to look at them in the light of book history. For instance, in the early 1950s over a thousand tablets, mostly in fragments, were excavated from 'House F," a small urban house in Nippur near modern Najaf. According to the datable household documents found in it, House F was used as a scribal school in the 1750s BC, immediately after the reign of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) the most famous of the early Babylonian kings.

"About half of the tablets in House F are the by-products of an elementary scribal education. They take the trainee from learning how to use a stylus to make horizontal, vertical, and diagonal wedges on the tablet to writing whole sentences in literary Sumerian. The students doubless learned to make their own tablets too, because in the corner of the tiny courtyard was a bitumen-lined basin filled with a mixture of fresh tablet clay and crumpled up tablets waiting to be recycled. Both the elementary exercises and the tablets themselves were standardized, with format and content closely related to pedagogical function" (Robson, "The Clay Tablet Book in Sumer, Assyria, and Babylonia," Eliot & Rose [eds.], A Companion to the History of the Book [2007] 71).

It is thought that the tablets from House F survived because they were reused as building material.

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"The Seated Scribe" or "Squatting Scribe" Circa 2,620 BCE – 2,500 BCE

The Seated Scribe or Squatting Scribe, a painted limestone sculpture of a seated scribe at work, was discovered by French archaeologist Auguste Mariette in 1850 at Saqqara, a vast burial ground in Egypt. It has been dated to the 4th Dynasty, 2620–2500 BCE. The sculpture is preserved in the Louvre.

"The figure is dressed in a white kilt stretched to its knees. It is holding a half rolled papyrus. Perhaps the most striking part aspect of the figure is its face. Its realistic features stand in contrast to perhaps more rigid and somewhat less detailed body. Hands, fingers, and fingernails of the sculpture are delicately modeled. The hands are in writing position. It seems that the right hand was holding a brush, now missing. The body is sturdy with a broad chest. The nipples are marked with two wooden stubs. . . .The dating itself remains uncertain; the period of the 6th dynasty has also been suggested. One additional fact in favor of the earlier date is that the statue is represented in writing' position while it seems that scribes from the period after the 5th dynasty have been portrayed mainly in 'reading' position' (Wikipedia article on The Seated Scribe, accessed 10-10-2013).

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The Wooden Panels of Hesy-Ra: Government Official, Physician, and Scribe Circa 2,600 BCE – 2,500 BCE

The wooden panels of Hesy-Ra (Hesire, Hesira), a government official, physician, and scribe who lived in the Third Dynasty of Egypt, and served under the pharaoh Djoser, were excavated from his tomb or mastaba in Saqqara (Sakkara, Saqqarah).  Hesy-Ra bore titles such as "Chief of Dentists and Physicians," and "Chief of the King's Scribes." He may be the earliest physician whose identity is known.

One of the wooden panels shows Hesy-Ra seated before the offering table. Slung over his shoulder are his writing utensils consisting of palette, ink bag and brush holder. 

"The Egyptian scribes used brushes made of stems of reeds 1.5 to 2.5 millmetres thick cut to a length of 16 to 25 centimetres. They were beaten or chewed to pulp at one end and kept in a tubular receptacle. Ink, which has retained its pitch black colour surprisingly well over thousands of years, was made of carbon mixed with gum. For rubrics they also had red ink made of ochre and gum. Since the ink was in the form of a powdered pigment kept in a bag or on a palette, a small pot containing water for disolving the ink also belonged to the scribe's equipment. The holder for the brushes, bag and palette were tied together. The scribe either carried his writing utensils in his hands or—if he needed his hands for other things—slung over his shoulder in such a way that the palette lay on his chest, ink bag and brush holder on his back" (Hussein, Origins of the Book. Egypt's contribution to the development of the book from papyrus to codex [1970] 10, plate 25).

The panels are preserved in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. 

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The Sitting Posture of Egyptian Scribes and How They Stored Papyrus Rolls. Circa 2,500 BCE

Detail from wall of tomb of Prince Kaninisut showing scribes in seated position. Please click on image to view larger image.

The Group of Scribes, the lower Range of Representations on the Northern Wall of the Tomb of Prince Kaninisut, excavated from Giza, shows 4 scribes sitting in the characteristic scribal posture on the floor, writing.  

"If writing was not done in a standing position, it was done sitting down with crossed legs, and the papyrus was laid without any support on the stretched kilt. The roll was held at right angles to the body and was unrolled with the left hand and rolled up with the right. The beginning was thus on the right-hand side and writing was done from the right to the left. Until the Twelfth Dynasty writing was done from the right to left in vertical lines, horizontal lines being only used for dates, headings or signatures. After the Twelfth Dynasty writing was done (from right to left) in horizontal lines, but one page was divided up into several columns. In certain texts writing was done backwards, i.e. single signs were written from right to left, but vertical lines (or columns) followed each other from left to right. In other manuscripts two columns were written alongside each other in such a way that in one the signs were written from left to right and in the other from right to left so that they 'looked at each other'. Adminstrative documents formed an exception; it was customary to hold them perpendicularly so that the lines ran parallel to the narrow side of the papyrus. The only known exception is thus all the more interesting. Since a Moscow papyrus containing an account of the voyage of Wenamum, i.e. a literary text, is wrriten in this way, it can be assume that it is an official report which the traveller wrote for some chancellery" (Hussein, Origins of the Book. Egypt's contribution to the development of the book from papyrus to codex (1970) 17-18, reproducing a drawing of the full Kaninisut relief on p. 11, caption p. 22).

Included in the image are receptacles for papyrus rolls, including bags and corded boxes. This limestone carving is from The Offering Room of Prince Kaninisut as preserved in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

"The postures and equipment of the scribes are very remarkable. Crouching on the ground, they seize the half-open papyrus with their left hand and hold the palette between the thumb and forefinger. With only one exception, the palettes are shells. Two round spots on the inside of the shells mark the places where they prepared the black and red used for the summary. Two spare reed pens stick behind the ear of each scribe. The boxes, destined to contain the papyri, show interesting forms" (Junker, The Offering Room of Prince Kaninisut [1951] 35 and plate 12).

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The Pyramid Texts: The Oldest Known Religious Texts Circa 2,400 BCE – 2,300 BCE

Pyramid texts located in Teti I's pyramid. (View Larger)

 A collection of ancient Egyptian religious texts inscribed within royal tombs from the time of the Old Kingdom, the Pyramid Texts are the oldest known religious texts. Written in Old Egyptian, they were carved on the walls and sarcophagi of the pyramids at Saqqara (Sakkara, Saqqarah; Arabic: سقا ) during the 5th and 6th Dynasties of the Old Kingdom.

The Pyramid Texts provide the earliest comprehensive view of the way in which the ancient Egyptians understood the structure of the universe, the role of the gods, and the fate of human beings after death. Their importance lies in their antiquity and in their endurance throughout the entire intellectual history of ancient Egypt. In the Middle Kingdom, many texts were borrowed from the pyramid chambers and mingled with new spells; this new form, called Coffin Texts, were usually written inside coffins. These eventually gave way to what we now know as the Book of the Dead.

"The oldest of the texts date to between 2400-2300 BCE. Unlike the Coffin Texts and Book of the Dead into which parts of the pyramid texts later evolved, the pyramid texts were reserved only for the pharaoh and were not illustrated. The pyramid texts mark the first written mention of the god Osiris, who would become the most important deity associated with afterlife.

"The spells, or "utterances", of the pyramid texts are primarily concerned with protecting the pharaoh's remains, reanimating his body after death, and helping him ascend to the heavens, which are the emphasis of the afterlife during the Old Kingdom. The spells delineate all of the ways the pharaoh could travel, including the use of ramps, stairs, ladders, and most importantly flying. The spells could also be used to call the gods to help, even threatening them if they did not comply" (Wikipedia article on Pyramid Texts, accessed 01-20-2009).

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Wael Sherbiny Rediscovers the Oldest & Longest Egyptian Leather Roll Circa 2,300 BCE – 2,000 BCE

In September 2015 Egyptologist Wael Sherbiny of Brussels announced his rediscovery of the oldest and longest Egyptian leather roll in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Dating from the late Old Kingdom to the early Midddle Kingdom (2300-2000 BCE), the roll measures about 8.2 feet (2.5 meters). The manuscript, which had been lost in the museum for about 70 years, was purchased by the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo from a local antiquities dealer sometime after the WWI. It was later donated to the Egyptian Museum, where it was unrolled shortly before the outbreak of the WWII. After it was stored in the museum it seems to have been completely forgotten until it was rediscovered by Sherbiny.

Though a relatively large number of Egyptian papyrus rolls or fragments survived in Egypt because of the dry desert climate, very few ancient Egyptian leather rolls survived. According to Sherbiny, leather was considered a very precious writing material in ancient Egypt, and it was the principal medium for recording religious texts and great historic events, as it was more practical than papyrus due to its flexibility and durability. Leather rolls, kept in the libraries and archives of temples, were also used as master copies from which cheaper copies were reproduced on papyrus. However, leather had a low rate of survival in the deseart. The Cairo roll was no exception: part of it was fragmented into very tiny pieces. Like in a jigsaw puzzle, Sherbiny pieced them together.

"The pieces formed a large pictorial-textual segment from the so-called Book of Two Ways, which is an illustrated composition containing temple rituals later adapted for the funerary use.

"This composition is known to Egyptologists as it occurs on the floorboard of Middle Kingdom coffins (2055-1650 B.C.) from the necropolis of Hermopolis in Upper Egypt.

“ 'Amazingly, the roll offers an even more detailed iconography than the Hermopolitan coffins in terms of texts and drawings,' Sherbiny said" (http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/oldest-and-longest-ancient-egyptian-leather-manuscript-found-150914.htm, accessed 10-01-2015).

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The Earliest Printing was Stamped into Soft Clay in Mesopotamia Circa 2,291 BCE – 2,254 BCE

MS 5106 of the Schoyen Collection, a brick printing block with a large loop handle from the period of Naram-Sîn. (View larger)

The earliest printing was the stamping of inscriptions into the soft clay of bricks before firing, done under the rule of the Sumerian king Naram-Sîn of Akkad  (Narām-Sîn, Naram-Suen), ruler of the Akkadian Empire, who built the Temple of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of sexual love, fertility, and warfare. Prior to Naram-Sîn the inscriptions on the bricks were written by hand.

MS 5106 in the Schøyen Collection is a brick printing block, 13x13x10 cm, 3 lines in a large formal cuneiform script with large loop handle from the period of Naram-Sîn.

Only two other brick printing blocks of Naram-Sîn are known: one intact with a cylindrical handle in Istanbul, and a tiny fragment in British Museum.

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The Garsana Archive of Cuneiform Tablets is Returned to Iraq 2,031 BCE – 2,024 BCE

On November 2, 2013 it was announced that Cornell University planned to forfeit and return to Iraq the archive of about 1400 cuneiform tablets known as the Garšana archive (Garsana), which was donated to Cornell beginning in the year 2000. The archive was returned under the assumption that the tablets were looted in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War

The Garšana archive represents the records of a rural estate at or near the town of Garšana located somewhere in the territory of the Sumerian city of Umma, probably in the vicinity of ancient Zabalam (Zabala) and Karkar. The tablets date from an eight year period, 2031-2024 BCE, during the Third Dynasty of Ur.  

"The estate was owned by Šu-Kabta, a physician and general, and his wife, the princess Simat-Ištaran. These documents record many of the daily functions of the estate and provide for the first time a comprehensive picture of life on such an estate. Detailed information on the construction and maintenance of the many buildings on the estate that included a brewery, textile and flour mills, leather working shop, and kitchen; the hiring and supervision of builders and laborers coming from various towns near and far; management of orchards; canal travel and trade between the estate and the cities of Sumer; and numerous other details of daily life. Particularly noteworthy are the funerary records of the family and the role of the princess Simat-Ištaran who assumed the control of the estate upon the death of her husband" (http://cuneiform.library.cornell.edu/collections/garsana, accessed 11-03-2013).

"Among the tablets is the private archive of a 21st century BC Sumerian princess in the city of Garsana that has made scholars rethink the role of women in the ancient kingdom of Ur. The administrative records show Simat-Ishtaran ruled the estate after her husband died.

"During her reign, women attained remarkably high status. They supervised men, received salaries equal to their male counterparts' and worked in construction, the clay tablets reveal.

" 'It's our first real archival discovery of an institution run by a woman,' said David Owen, the Cornell researcher who has led the study of the tablets. Because scholars do not know precisely where the tablets were found, however, the site of ancient Garsana cannot be excavated for further information.

"Other tablets provide detailed administrative records of ancient life, including the procedures for temple rituals, the resettlement of refugees and the output of agricultural lands.

"The source of the Garsana tablets was the subject of a 2001 investigation by the Department of Homeland Security, according to records obtained by Harvard researcher Benjamin Studevent-Hickman under the Freedom of Information Act. Buying and possessing antiquities illegally removed from countries such as Iraq, which claim them as government property, can be a violation of U.S. law" (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-iraq-tablets-cornell-university-20131103,0,7036026.story#axzz2jav6tYSE, accessed 11-03-2013).

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Execration Texts: Ceremonial Writing and Sympathetic Magic in Ancient Egypt Circa 2,000 BCE – 1,800 BCE

Most often written upon statuettes of bound foreigners, bowls, or blocks of clay or stone, which were subsequently destroyed, Execration Texts, also referred to as proscription lists, were ancient Egyptian hieratic  texts, listing enemies of the Pharaoh, enemies of the Egyptian state or troublesome foreign neighbors. The ceremonial process of breaking the written names and burying them was believed to be sympathetic magic that would affect the persons or entities named in the texts. This magical practice, in which Execration Text framents were usually placed near tombs or ritual sites, was most common during times of conflict with Egypt's Asiatic neighbors. 

"The Execration texts are an important resource for researchers in the field of ancient Near Eastern history of the 20th-18th centuries BCE and Bible studies. The first group of Execration Texts were published by Kurt Sethe in 1926, known as the Berlin texts. Georges Posener published a second group of texts in 1957, known as the Brussels texts.

"The first collection are inscribed on pottery sherds, and contain the names of approximately 20 places in Canaan and Phoenicia, and over 30 rulers of the period. These texts contain what is possibly the first known mention of Jerusalem, from the beginning of the second millennium BCE, the end of the Eleventh dynasty to the Twelfth dynasty.

"The second group of texts are inscribed on figurines of bound prisoners discovered in Saqqara. This group contains the names of 64 places, usually listing one or two rulers. Seven known Asian countries are listed. This group has been dated to the end of the Twelfth dynasty.

"An additional group of texts, the Mirgissa texts, was published by Yvan Koenig in 1990" (Wikipedia article on Execration texts, accessed 07-12-2014).


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"The World's First Typewritten Document" - James Chadwick Circa 2,000 BCE – 1,700 BCE

Sides A (left) and B (right) of the Phaistos Disc. (View Larger)

The Phaistos Disc, a disc of fired clay from the Minoan Palace of Phaistos on the island of Crete, was discovered in 1908 by the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier, and remains the most famous document found in Crete.

"It is about 15 cm (5.9 in) in diameter and covered on both sides with a spiral of stamped symbols. Its purpose and meaning, and even its original geographical place of manufacture, remain disputed, making it one of the most famous mysteries of archaeology. This unique object is now on display at the archaeological museum of Heraklion in Crete" (Wikipedia article on Phaistos Disc, accessed 07-26-2009).

Because of the unique features of the disc, and the mysteries surrounding its origin, many people have doubted its authenticity, but no one has yet been able to prove conclusively that it is a forgery.

"The disk has the distinction of being the world's first typewritten document. It was made by taking a stamp or punch bearing the sign to be written in a raised pattern, and impressing this on the wet clay. The maker therefore needed to have as many stamps as there were signs in the script. It has the advantage that even complicated signs can be quickly written, and every example of the same sign is identical and easy to read. The disadvantage is that a considerable outlay of time and effort is required to make the set of stamps before any document can be produced. It is therefore evident that the system was not created solely for a single document; its maker must have intended to reproduce a large number of documents, though it remains some way from being an anticipation of printing.

"It is therefore all the more remarkable that after more than eighty years of excavation not another single scrap of clay impressed with these stamps had been found at Phaistos, or at any other site in Crete or elsewhere. It would be very surprising if there were not somewhere more examples of the script waiting to be found, but the disk remains so far unique, and the suspicion must arise that it was an isolated object brought from some other area.

"This impression of foreign origin can be supported by two arguments. The work of cutting the stamps, whether made directly or perhaps more likely by making moulds into which metal was poured, is a technique very similar to gem-engraving. We might therefore expect the signs to bear a stylistic resemblance to those engraved on seal-stones. In fact the style of art is noticeably different. Secondly, some of the objects depicted by the signs have a distinctly foreign appearance to those familiar with Minoan art" (Chadwick, Linear B and Related Scripts  [1987]  57-58).

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The Older of the Two Best-Known Mathematical Papyri Circa 2,000 BCE

Several problems from the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus. (View Larger)

The Moscow Mathematical Papyrus, the older of the two best-known mathematical papyri along with the larger Rhind Mathematical Papyrus (noticed in this database), is also called the Golenischev Mathematical Papyrus after its first owner, Egyptologist Vladimir Goleniščev, who in 1909 sold his huge collection of Egyptian artifacts to  Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, where the papyrus is preserved today.

"Based on the palaeography of the hieratic text, it probably dates to the Eleventh dynasty of Egypt. Approximately 18 feet long and varying between 1 1/2 and 3 inches wide, its format was divided into 25 problems with solutions by the Soviet Orientalist Vasily Vasilievich Struve in 1930" (Wikipedia article on Moscow Mathematical Papyrus, accessed 09-11-2009).

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Discovery of the "Ark Tablet": Decoding the Story of the Flood Circa 1,900 BCE – 1,700 BCE

In 2009 British Museum curator Irving Finkel, an expert on cuneiform inscriptions on clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia, received for examination and translation what came to be known as the "Ark Tablet" from its owner Douglas Simmonds. This is the only cuneiform tablet with precise instructions as to how to build the Ark described in the early accounts of the flood, best known through later accounts in literature, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Ark Tablet provided instructions for building the Ark in the form of a very large round boat called a coracle.

According to Finkel, the tablet dates from 1900-1700 BCE, though the tablet was not dated by the scribe. However, comparatively precise dating can be done from the character and composition of the cuneiform signs and from grammatical forms and usages. The tablet measures 11.5 x 6.0 cm and contains exactly 60 lines of cuneiform script written out ably and without error. In The Ark Before Noah. Decoding the Story of the Flood (2014) Finkel illustrated the tablet and translated its contents on pp. 107-110. Incidentally Finkel's well-illustrated book is a masterpiece of writing about relatively abstruse subjects for the general public. So geared to a non-scholarly audience is this book that footnotes are not even mentioned in the text. One has to search for them at the back of the book.

In the British Museum blog announcing his book on January 23, 2014 Finkel summarized his conclusions in this way:

"When the gods decided to wipe out mankind with a flood, the god Enki, who had a sense of humour, leaked the news to a man called Atra-hasis, the ‘Babylonian Noah,’ who was to build the Ark. Atra-hasis’s Ark, however was round. To my knowledge, no one has ever thought of that possibility. The new tablet also describes the materials and the measurements to build it: quantities of palm-fibre rope, wooden ribs and bathfuls of hot bitumen to waterproof the finished vessel. The result was a traditional coracle, but the largest the world had ever dreamed of, with an area of 3,600 sq. metres (equivalent to two-thirds the area of a football pitch), and six-metre high walls. The amount of rope prescribed, stretched out in a line, would reach from London to Edinburgh!

"To anyone who has the typical image learnt from children’s toys and book illustrations in mind, a round Ark is bizarre at first, but, on reflection, the idea makes sense. A waterproofed coracle would never sink and being round isn’t a problem – it never had to go anywhere: all it had to do was float and keep the contents safe: a cosmic lifeboat. Palm-and-pitch coracles had been seen on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers since time immemorial: they were still a common sight on Iraq’s great waterways in the 1950s."

In an article in The Guardian published on January 24, 2014 Finkel was quoted as saying, "I am 107% convinced the ark never existed."

"Finkel describes the clay tablet as 'one of the most important human documents ever discovered', and his conclusions will send ripples into the world of creationism and among ark hunters, where many believe in the literal truth of the Bible account, and innumerable expeditions have been mounted to try to find the remains of the ark.

"The clay tablet is going on display at the British Museum, loaned by Simmons, beside a tablet from the museum's collection with the earliest map of the world, as seen from ancient Babylon. The flood tablet helped explain details of the map, which shows islands beyond the river marking the edge of the known world, with the text on the back explaining that on one are the remains of the ark.

"Finkel said that not only did the ark never exist, but ark hunters were looking in the wrong place – the map shows the ark in the direction of, but far beyond the mountain range later known as Ararat."

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Egyptian Scribal Palettes with Ink Wells and Brushes Circa 1,550 BCE – 1450

Two Egyptian scribal palettes preserved in the British Museum. (View Larger)

The Egyptian hieroglyphic sign for 'write' was formed from an image of the scribal palette and brush case. Statues of scribes are sometimes shown with a papyrus across their knees and a palette—the scribe's trademark—over one shoulder. Two examples of the scribal palettes are preserved in the British Museum (EA 12784, EA 5512).

"From the late Old Kingdom on, the basic palette was made of a rectangular piece of wood, with two cavities at one end to hold cakes of black and red ink. Carbon was used to make the black ink and iron-rich red ochre to make the red. Both pigments were mixed with gum so that they congealed rather than turned to dust when they dried. The cakes of ink were moistened with a wet brush, rather like modern watercolours or Chinese ink. Brush-pens were made of rushes, the tip cut at an angle and chewed to separate the fibres. These were kept in a slot in the middle of the palette.

"Black was the normal colour for writing. Red was used to mark the start of a text, or to highlight key words and phrases, like quantities in medicines, or for the names of demons in religious papyri. More colours were needed for illustrations, such as those in the Book of the Dead" (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/t/two_scribal_palettes_with_ink.aspx, accessed 07-11-2009).

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In Ancient Egypt Only the "Book of the Dead" Papyri Were Commercially Produced Circa 1,550 BCE – 50 BCE

Detail from the Papyrus of Ani, showing Ani and his wife entering at left.  Please click to see complete image.

Detail of image showing cursive hieroglyphs.  Please click to see complete image.

Detail from plate 6 showing the name "Ani, The Scribe." Please click to view entire image.

Detail from plate 12 showing the name "Ani, The Scribe" in a different hand.  Please click to view entire image.

It is doubtful whether any book trade, as we understand the term, existed in ancient Egypt because literacy was limited to an elite group, chiefly scribes and priests. Instead information was transmitted by oral tradition or proclamation. It is believed that a small number of literate people may have personally copied texts that they needed. Only copies of the Book of the Dead, a funerary text used from the beginning of the New Kingdom, around 1550 BCE to around 50 BCE, were written for sale.  Some copies of this work have the place for the name left blank, to be filled in later.  Close study shows that the name of the owner was sometimes written in by a later scribe with different handwriting, suggesting that these funeral papyri were maintained in inventory before sale.  It is thought that illiterate people also wanted to possess the Book of the Dead, which guaranteed protection against the dangers of the afterlife, in order to add it to their tomb furnishings.

"A Book of the Dead papyrus was produced to order by scribes. They were commissioned by people in preparation for their own funeral, or by the relatives of someone recently deceased. They were expensive items; one source gives the price of a Book of the Dead scroll as one deben of silver, perhaps half the annual pay of a labourer. Papyrus itself was evidently costly, as there are many instances of its re-use in everyday documents, creating palimpsests. In one case, a Book of the Dead was written on second-hand papyrus.

"Most owners of the Book of the Dead were evidently part of the social elite; they were initially reserved for the royal family, but later papyri are found in the tombs of scribes, priests and officials. Most owners were men, and generally the vignettes included the owner's wife as well. Towards the beginning of the history of the Book of the Dead, there are roughly 10 copies belonging to men for every one for a woman. However, during the Third Intermediate Period, 2/3 were for women; and women owned roughly a third of the hieratic paypri from the Late and Ptolemaic Periods.

"The dimensions of a Book of the Dead could vary widely; the longest is 40m long while some are as short as 1m. They are composed of sheets of papyrus joined together, the individual papyri varying in width from 15 cm to 45 cm. The scribes working on Book of the Dead papyri took more care over their work than those working on more mundane texts; care was taken to frame the text within margins, and to avoid writing on the joints between sheets. The words peret em heru, or 'coming forth by day' sometimes appear on the reverse of the outer margin, perhaps acting as a label.

"Books were often prefabricated in funerary workshops, with spaces being left for the name of the deceased to be written in later. For instance, in the Papyrus of Ani, the name "Ani" appears at the top or bottom of a column, or immediately following a rubric introducing him as the speaker of a block of text; the name appears in a different handwriting to the rest of the manuscript, and in some places is mis-spelt or omitted entirely.

"The text of a New Kingdom Book of the Dead was typically written in cursive hieroglyphs, most often from left to right, but also sometimes from right to left. The hieroglyphs were in columns, which were separated by black lines - a similar arrangement to that used when hieroglyphs were carved on tomb walls or monuments. Illustrations were put in frames above, below, or between the columns of text. The largest illustrations took up a full page of papyrus.

"From the 21st Dynasty onward, more copies of the Book of the Dead are found in hieratic script. The calligraphy is similar to that of other hieratic manuscripts of the New Kingdom; the text is written in horizontal lines across wide columns (often the column size corresponds to the size of the papyrus sheets of which a scroll is made up). Occasionally a hieratic Book of the Dead contains captions in hieroglyphic.

"The text of a Book of the Dead was written in both black and red ink, regardless of whether it was in hieroglyphic or hieratic script. Most of the text was in black, with red used for the titles of spells, opening and closing sections of spells, the instructions to perform spells correctly in rituals, and also for the names of dangerous creatures such as the demon Apep. The black ink used was based on carbon, and the red ink on ochre, in both cases mixed with water.

"The style and nature of the vignettes used to illustrate a Book of the Dead varies widely. Some contain lavish colour illustrations, even making use of gold leaf. Others contain only line drawings, or one simple illustration at the opening. Book of the Dead papyri were often the work of several different scribes and artists whose work was literally pasted together. It is usually possible to identify the style of more than one scribe used on a given manuscript, even when the manuscript is a shorter one. The text and illustrations were produced by different scribes; there are a number of Books where the text was completed but the illustrations were left empty" (Wikipedia article on Book of the Dead, accessed 05-06-2012).


In 1842 Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius named this class of papyrus when he edited papyrus Turin 1791 as an exemplar, and had it published in Leipzig in 1842 as Das Todtenbuch der Ägypter nach dem hieroglyphischen Papyrus in Turin mit einem Vorworte zum ersten Male Herausgegeben. This was the first printed edition of The Book of the Dead. The modern numbering of the Book of the Dead spells (BD 1-165) is derived from Lepsius's edition of this papyrus.

(This entry was last revised on April 4, 2014.) 

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A Wooden Writing Board Containing Text of the Words of Khakheperresoneb Circa 1,500 BCE

EA 5645 of the British Museum: the Words of Khakheperresoneb written on a wooden writing board. (View Larger)

In addition to papyrus, wood was used as a writing medium in the ancient world, though far fewer examples have survived than writing on papyrus, clay, or stone. An example of an ancient Egyptian wooden writing board is that containing text of the words of Khakheperresoneb preserved in the British Museum (EA 5645).

"The main uses of writing boards in ancient Egypt included writing practice. This board is made from wood overlaid with gesso to provide a surface for writing, which could then be easily erased when required. Fortunately, this board was not erased, since it is the major source for one of the literary texts of the Middle Kingdom (2040-1750 BC): the Words of Khakheperresoneb.

"The name of the author, Khakheperresoneb, is based on one of the royal names of King Senwosret II of the Twelfth Dynasty (about 1844-1837 BC). This suggests that the original text was composed in the late Twelfth Dynasty some two hundred years earlier than this copy. It was common for works of literature that were considered to be classics to be repeatedly copied in their entirety or in sections in the New Kingdom (about 1550-1-70 BC). The small red dots in the text are termed 'verse points' and mark the ends of lines of verse" (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/w/wooden_writing_board_and_text.aspx, accessed 07-11-2009).

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The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions, the Earliest Evidence for Alphabetic Writing Circa 1,500 BCE

The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, first discovered at Serabit el-Khadem (Serabit el-Khadim), an ancient Egyptian turquoise mining site in the Sinai Peninsula, by W. M. Flinders Petrie in 1905, and supplemented by additional finds in subsequent decades, represent the earliest evidence for alphabetic writing. They consist of linear pictographic symbols inscribed on statuettes, stone panels, and rock faces. In the 1994-95 John Coleman Darnell and Deborah Darnell, who started searching along caravan trails in the Western Desert west of Luxor in the Theban Desert Road Survey, discovered two single-line rock inscriptions at Wadi el-Hol, near Thebes in Upper Egypt. Those inscriptions are written in a script that closely resembles the Proto-Sinaitic texts from Serabit el-Khadem. 

Joseph Lam, "The Invention and Development of the Alphabet," IN: Wood (ed) Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond (2010) 189-95, illustrating one of the inscriptions as No. 89 on p. 196.

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One of the Earliest Known Examples of Writing in Europe Circa 1,490 BCE – 1,390 BCE

On April 2, 2011 Michael Cosmopoulos of the University of Missouri-St. Louis reported the discovery at Ilaina, Greece of a clay tablet written in Linear B script. This tablet, 2 x 3 inches in size, was preserved when someone discarded it in a trash pit, burned the trash, and inadvertently fired the clay. 

When the tablet was discovered it was the one of the earliest examples of writing found on the mainland of Europe.

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The Proto-Canaanite Alphabet 1,450 BCE – 1,050 BCE

The Ostracon from ‘Izbet Sartah (1200–1000 BCE) showing characters of the Proto-Canaanite alphabet.

"The Proto-Canaanite alphabet is a consonantal alphabet of twenty-two acrophonic glyphs, found in Levantine texts of the Late Bronze Age (from ca. the 15th century BC), by convention taken to last until a cut-off date of 1050 BC, after which it is called Phoenician. About a dozen incriptions written in Proto-Canaanite have been discovered in modern-day Israel and Lebanon.

"While a descendant script from the Egyptian hieroglyphs, it is also the parent script of Phoenician, itself the ancestor of nearly every alphabet in use today, from Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Roman, and Berber in the West to Thai, Mongol, and perhaps Hangul in the East. The Hebrew alphabet remains the closest to its predecessor, as only the form of the letters has been modified—unsurprising, since Hebrew is a Canaanite language and had, in its original pronunciation, roughly the same set of consonants as the dialect that the alphabet was devised for."

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Linear B and its Decipherment: Records of Mycenaean Civilization Circa 1,450 BCE – 1953

"Before the advent of the Greek alphabet, the written records of Mainland Greece, Crete, and Cyprus were recorded using a family of five related scripts. The earliest of these was Cretan Hieroglyphic, devised by the Minoans on Crete at the end of the 3rd millennium BCE; their later script, Linear A, is based on Cretan Hieroglyphic. Linear A in turn served as the model for two more scripts near the end of the Bronze Age: Cypro-Minoan, the script of the pre-Greek inhabitants of Cyprus; and Linear B, the script of the Mycenaeans, used for writing Mycenaean Greek. Finally, in the early Iron Age, the Greek-speaking peoples of Cyprus used Cypro-Minoan as the model for a new script, the Cypriot Syllabary, and employed it to write in their own dialect of Greek" (Brent Davis, Introduction to the Aegean Pre-Alphabetic Scripts [2010]).

About 1450 BCE, during or shortly after the period in which Cypro-Minoan was created on Cyprus, the Mycenaeans devised their own script based on the still undeciphered script known today as Linear A, and began using it to create administrative records. This syllabic script, different from Linear A, and first found in the discovery of Knossos on Crete in 1878, was called Linear B by archaeologist Arthur Evans

"Mycenaean artifacts have been found well outside the limits of the Mycenaean world: namely Mycenaean swords are known from as far away as Georgia in the Caucasus, an amber object inscribed with Linear B symbols has been found in BavariaGermany and Mycenaean bronze double axes and other objects dating from the 13th century BC have been found in Ireland and in Wessex and Cornwall in England" (Wikipedia article on Mycenaean Greece, accessed 10-13-2014).

During 1952 and 1953 English architect and classical scholar Michael Ventris deciphered Linear B without the aid of a bilingual document—the use of which was so instrumental in the decipherment of other ancient languages such as PhoenicianEgyptian hieroglyphs and cuneiform script. Ventris's remarkable achievement proved that Linear B is an early form of Greek (Mycenaean Greek) used from about 1450 to 1200 BCE.

During the Bronze Age Collapse, from circa 1200-1150 BCE Linear B, found mainly in the palace archives  at Knossos, Cydonia, Pylos, Thebes and Mycenae, disappeared with the fall of Mycenaean  civilization. The succeeding period, known as the Greek Dark Ages, left no evidence of the use of writing. With the collapse of the palatial centers at Knossos and elsewhere—one possible but no longer widely accepted explanation for which was the eruption of the volcano on the island of Thera (Santorini)—no more monumental stone buildings were built and the practice of wall painting may have ceased. Writing in Linear B also ceased, vital trade links were lost, and towns and villages were abandoned. The population of Greece was reduced, and the world of organized state armies, kings, officials, and redistributive economies disappeared. Most of the information concerning the Greek Dark Ages comes from burial sites and artifacts contained within the graves. To what extent the earliest Greek literary sources, the Iliad and Odyssey— products of the oral tradition— and Hesiod's Works and Days written after writing was reintroduced to Greece, describe life in the Greek Dark Ages or earlier remains an issue debated by scholars.

Ventris & Chadwick, Documents in Mycenaean Greek (1956), chapters 1-2. Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B (1958).

In February 2014 a very useful anonymous illustrated historical summary of "The Decipherment Process" was available from the classics department at the University of Cambridge at this link. The latest bibliographical reference in this PDF was dated 2013.

In 2013 attention was drawn to the work of the American classicist Alice Kober, who worked for years on the decipherment of Linear B, but died of lung cancer in 1950 at the early age of 43. It was suggested that Ventris may have been assisted in his discovery by work done by Kober. 

(This entry was last revised on October 13, 2014.)

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Archive of Egyptian Diplomatic Correspondence Written in the Diplomatic Language, Akkadian Cuneiform Circa 1,360 BCE – 1,330 BCE

ME E29785 of the British Museum: A letter from Burnaburiash, a king of the Kassite dynasty of Babylonia, to Amenhotep IV. The tablet is one of the Amarna Letters. (View Larger)

The Amarna Letters, or Correspondence, an archive of mostly diplomatic correspondence between the Egyptian administration and its representatives in Canaan and Amurru during the New Kingdom, written on clay tablets, was found around 1887 in Upper Egypt at Amarna, the modern name for the Egyptian capital of Akhetaten (Akhetaton), founded by pharaoh Akhenaten (Akhnaton), during the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt.  

"The Amarna letters are unusual in Egyptological research, being mostly written in Akkadian cuneiform, the writing system of ancient Mesopotamia rather than ancient Egypt. The known tablets currently total 382 in number, 24 further tablets having been recovered since the Norwegian Assyriologist Jørgen Alexander Knudtzon's landmark edition of the Amarna correspondence, Die El-Amarna-Tafeln in two volumes (1907 and 1915).

"These letters, consisting of cuneiform tablets mostly written in Akkadian – the regional language of diplomacy for this period – were first discovered by local Egyptians around 1887, who secretly dug most of them from the ruined city (they were originally stored in an ancient building archaeologists have since called the Bureau of Correspondence of Pharaoh) and then sold them on the antiquities market. Once the location where they were found was determined, the ruins were explored for more. The first archaeologist who successfully recovered more tablets was William Flinders Petrie in 1891–92, who found 21 fragments. Émile Chassinat, then director of the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo, acquired two more tablets in 1903. Since Knudtzon's edition, some 24 more tablets, or fragments of tablets, have been found, either in Egypt, or identified in the collections of various museums.

"The tablets originally recovered by local Egyptians have been scattered among museums in Cairo, Europe and the United States: 202 or 203 are at the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin; 80 in the British Museum; 49 or 50 at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo; seven at the Louvre; 3 at the Pushkin Museum; and 1 is currently in the collection of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

"The full archive, which includes correspondence from the preceding reign of Amenhotep III as well, contained over three hundred diplomatic letters; the remainder are a miscellany of literary or educational materials. These tablets shed much light on Egyptian relations with Babylonia, Assyria, the Mitanni, the Hittites, Syria, Canaan, and Alashiya (Cyprus). They are important for establishing both the history and chronology of the period. Letters from the Babylonian king Kadashman-Enlil I anchor the timeframe of Akhenaten's reign to the mid-14th century BC. Here was also found the first mention of a Near Eastern group known as the Habiru, whose possible connection with the Hebrews remains debated. Other rulers include Tushratta of Mittani, Lib'ayu of Shehchem, Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem and the quarrelsome king Rib-Hadda of Byblos, who in over 58 letters continuously pleads for Egyptian military help" (Wikipedia article on Amarna letters, accessed 09-01-2009).

In July 2014 digital facsimiles and transliterations of the Amarna tablets in the Vorderasiatisches Museum were available from CDLI (Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative) at this link.

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Self-Portrait of an Egyptian Scribe with his Autograph Signature Circa 1,292 BCE – 1,069 BCE

A self-portrait of the scribe Sesh, arms raised in the presentation of a papyrus scroll and possibly a writing palette. Preserved in the Schoyen Collection as MS 1695. (View Larger)

A sketch in rust-red drawn on a limestone ostracon represents the self-portrait of the scribe, Sesh, wearing a knee-length kilt, his arms raised to present a papyrus roll and possibly a writing pallette. The sketch is signed with the hieroglyph of "scribe", consisting of a palette with wells for red and black ink, shoulder strap, water pot and reed pen. Measuring 11 x 12 cm, it was created in Deir-el-Medina, Western Thebes, 19th or 20th dynasty, and excavated there, circa 1975. It is preserved in the Schøyen Collection (MS 1695).

Deir-el-Medina was occupied by the community of workmen who constructed and decorated the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Many pieces, mostly dating from the 19th and 20th Dynasties were recovered from this site—mostly detailed drafts for specific details of a tomb's decoration.

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The Earliest Chinese Inscriptions that are Indisputably Writing Circa 1,200 BCE – 1,050 BCE


The oldest Chinese inscriptions that are indisputably writing are the Oracle bone script (Chinese: 甲骨文; pinyin: jiǎgǔwén; literally 'shell-bone-script') of the late thirteenth century BCE. It is not until the oracle-bone inscriptions that we find grammatically connected marks that certainly record language. Lack of archaeological evidence prevents addressing the related questions of how long before that time writing developed and in what contexts, or whether writing in China developed gradually or rapidly, and whether it developed exclusively in a religious context or, as in the ancient Middle East, it was tied to court adminstration.

Oracle bone script was

"first identified by scholars in 1899 on pieces of bone and turtle shell being sold as medicine, and by 1928, the source of the oracle bones had been traced back to modern Xiǎotún (小屯) village at Ānyáng in Hénán Province, where official archaeological excavations in 1928–1937 discovered 20,000 oracle bone pieces, about 1/5 of the total discovered. The inscriptions were records of the divinations performed for or by the royal Shāng household. The oracle bone script is a well-developed writing system, attested from the late Shang Dynasty (1200–1050 BC). Only about 1,400 of the 2,500 known oracle bone script logographs can be identified with later Chinese characters and thus deciphered by paleographers."

"The late Shāng oracle bone writings, along with a few contemporary characters in a different style cast in bronzes, constitute the earliest significant corpus of Chinese writing, which is essential for the study of Chinese etymology, as Shāng writing is directly ancestral to the modern Chinese script. It is also the oldest member and ancestor of the Chinese family of scripts.

"The oracle bone script of the late Shāng appears archaic and pictographic in flavor, as does its contemporary, the Shāng writing on bronzes. The earliest oracle bone script appears even more so than examples from late in the period (thus some evolution did occur over the roughly 200-year period). Comparing oracle bone script to both Shāng and early Western Zhōu period writing on bronzes, oracle bone script is clearly greatly simplified, and rounded forms are often converted to rectilinear ones; this is thought to be due to the difficulty of engraving the hard, bony surfaces, compared with the ease of writing them in the wet clay of the molds from which the bronzes were cast. The more detailed and more pictorial style of the bronze graphs is thus thought to be more representative of typical Shāng writing (as would have normally occurred on bamboo books) than the oracle bone script forms, and it is this typical style which continued to evolve into the Zhōu period writing and then into the seal script of the Qín state in the late Zhōu period.

"It is known that the Shāng people also wrote with brush and ink, as brush-written graphs have been found on a small number of pottery, shell and bone, and jade and other stone items, and there is evidence that they also wrote on bamboo (or wooden) books just like those which have been found from the late Zhōu to Hàn periods, because the graphs for a writing brush (聿 yù) and bamboo book (冊 cè, a book of thin vertical slats or slips with horizontal string binding, like a Venetian blind turned 90 degrees) are present in the oracle bone script. Since the ease of writing with a brush is even greater than that of writing with a stylus in wet clay, it is assumed that the style and structure of Shāng graphs on bamboo were similar to those on bronzes, and also that the majority of writing occurred with a brush on such books. Additional support for this notion includes the reorientation of some graphs, by turning them 90 degrees as if to better fit on tall, narrow slats; this style must have developed on bamboo or wood slat books and then carried over to the oracle bone script. Additionally, the writing of characters in vertical columns, from top to bottom, is for the most part carried over from the bamboo books to oracle bone inscriptions. In some instances lines are written horizontally so as to match the text to divinatory cracks, or columns of text rotate 90 degrees in mid stream, but these are exceptions to the normal pattern of writing, and inscriptions were never read bottom to top. The vertical columns of text in Chinese writing are traditionally ordered from right to left; this pattern is found on bronze inscriptions from the Shāng dynasty onward. Oracle bone inscriptions, however, are often arranged so that the columns begin near the centerline of the shell or bone, and move toward the edge, such that the two sides are ordered in mirror-image fashion" (Wikipedia article on Oracle bone script, accessed 07-11-2009).

Edward L. Shaughnessy, "The Beginnings of Writing in China" IN: Woods (ed) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Middle East and Beyond (2010) 215-24.

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The Earliest Chinese Inscriptions in Bronze Circa 1,200 BCE – 1,045 BCE

A bronze guang, or ritualistic wine vessel, of the Shang dynasty. (View Larger)

The earliest Chinese inscriptions in bronze date from the late Shang period (c. 1200-1045 BCE), the same period in which the oracle bone inscriptions were produced.

"Discovered at Anyang in Henan province and at sites in the central Yangzi region, Shang bronze objects belonged to members of the royal family and the political elite. Under Zhou rule (104-221 BC) this social level of ownership continued and even widened. In existence today are probably over ten thousand inscribed vessels, weapons, bells and other bronze objects made before the Qin unification of 221 BC.

"Inscriptions on most weapons are prominent and easily visible. By contrast, inscriptions on vessels of the Shang, and the following Western Zhou period (1045-770 BC) were usually placed on the vessels' interior surfaces, where they are much less clearly seen. . . .

"Precise practices at different bronze foundries varied, but nearly all inscriptions were prepared on a clay mould and cast from this on to the metal surface of an object. Most inscriptions are countersunk and positive. That is, characters do not rise above the surrounding metal surface, and the text is not a form of mirror-writing (a negative inscription). Inscriptions in relief were occasionally cast, but they became widespread only in association with ironwork in a much later period. Negative inscriptions are extremely rare. Texts were usually arranged in columns reading from right to left.

"In order to obtain a positive inscription the surface of the mould had to be prepared with the text in a negative form. To do this, the text was written with a stylus on the surface of wet clay. When hardened, this positive version could be pressed into a new supply of wet clay to provide a negative relief. Next, the hardened clay of the second version in negative could be trimmed and fitted as a block into an excavation on the mould core of the whole vessel. The mould and this fitting were then ready to receive the molten metal, which would re-form the inscription back into positive appearance. This method comprises the fewest transfer operations needed to cast a countersunk, positive inscription and allows for the text to be written out freehand in the same form that it will assume in metal.

"Bronze inscriptions are thus preservations of calligraphy in the medium of clay. Writing in wet clay offered a wide range of possibilities for variation and liveliness, and even quite early inscriptions show a concern for style" (Oliver Moore, Chinese [2000] 33, 36).

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1,000 BCE – 300 BCE

The Oldest Known Evidence of the Phoenician Alphabet Circa 1,000 BCE

The Ahiram Sarcophagus, discovered by the French archaeologist Pierre Montet in 1923 in Jbeil, Lebanon (the historic Byblos), is the oldest known evidence of the Phoenician alphabet. It is preserved in the National Museum of Beirut

"Phoenician became one of the most widely used writing systems, spread by Phoenician merchants across the Mediterranean world, where it was assimilated by many other cultures and evolved. Many modern writing systems thought to have descended from Phoenician cover much of the world. The Aramaic alphabet, a modified form of Phoenician, was the ancestor of the modern Arabic and Hebrew scripts, as well as the Brāhmī script, the parent writing system of most modern abugidas in India, Southeast Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia. The Greek alphabet (and by extension its descendants such as the Latin, the Cyrillic and the Coptic), was a direct successor of Phoenician, though certain letter values were changed to represent vowels"(Wikipedia article on Phoenician alphabet, accessed 08-06-2009).

The low relief carved panels of the Ahiram Sarcophagus

"make it 'the major artistic document for the Early Iron Age' in Phoenicia. Associated items dating to the Late Bronze Age either support an early dating, in the thirteenth century BC or attest the reuse of an early shaft tomb in the eleventh century BC. The major scene represents a king seated on a throne carved with winged sphinxes. A priestess offers him a lotus flower. On the lid two male figures confront one another with addorsed [back to back] seated lions between them, read by Glenn Markoe as a reference to the father and son of the inscription. Egyptian influence that is a character of Late Bronze Age art in northwest Canaan is replaced here by Assyrian influences in the rendering of figures and the design of the throne and a table" (Wikipedia article on Ahiram, accessed 08-062009).

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Possibly the Earliest Hebrew Inscription Circa 1,000 BCE

A shard of ancient pottery found in the Elah Fortress, bearing Proto-Canaanite script which might compose the earliest known Hebrew inscription. (View Larger)

An ostracon shard found in October 2008 about 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem at the Elah Fortress in Khirbet Qeiyafa, the earliest known fortified city of the biblical period of Israel, and written in ink in Proto-Canaanite script, could be the earliest known Hebrew inscription, according to biblical archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel. Other scholars urge caution in accepting that interpretation. The shard is one of only a dozen or so examples of Proto-Canaanite that have survived.

"The Israelites were not the only ones using proto-Canaanite characters, and other scholars suggest it is difficult - perhaps impossible - to conclude the text is Hebrew and not a related tongue spoken in the area at the time. Garfinkel bases his identification on a three-letter verb from the inscription meaning to do, a word he said existed only in Hebrew.

" 'That leads us to believe that this is Hebrew, and that this is the oldest Hebrew inscription that has been found,' he said.

"Other prominent Biblical archaeologists warned against jumping to conclusions.

"Hebrew University archaeologist Amihai Mazar said the inscription was very important, as it is the longest proto-Canaanite text ever found. But he suggested that calling the text Hebrew might be going too far" (http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1032929.html, accessed 08-30-2009).

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The Gezer Calendar Circa 950 BCE

A tablet of soft limestone inscribed in a paleo-Hebrew script, the Gezer Calendar is one of the oldest known examples of Hebrew writing, dating to the 10th century BCE. It was discovered in excavations of the Biblical city of Gezer, 30 miles northwest of Jerusalem, by R.A.S. Macalister in his excavations between 1902 and 1907, and it is preserved in the Museum of the Ancient Orient in Istanbul.

"The calendar describes monthly or bi-monthly periods and attributes to each a duty such as harvest, planting or tending specific crops.

"It reads:

"Two months of harvest

"Two months of planting

"Two months are late planting

"One month of hoeing

"One month of barley-harvest

"One month of harvest and festival

"Two months of grape harvesting

"One month of summer fruit

"Scholars have speculated that the calendar is either a schoolboy's memory exercise or perhaps the text of a popular folk song, or child's song. Another possibility is something designed for the collection of taxes from farmers."

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The Cascajal Block, the Earliest Precolumbian or Mesoamerican Writing Yet Discovered Circa 950 BCE – 600 BCE

On September 15, 2006 María del Carmen Rodríquez Martínez, Ponciano Ortiz Ceballos, and colleagues described the Cascajal Block, a serpentine slab about the size of a writing tablet dated to the early first millenium BCE. The block or slab is incised with characters previously unknown that may represent the earliest writing system in the New World. The block was named for its find spot in the village of Cascajal, municipality of Lomas de Tacamichapa, Jáltipan, Veracruz, Mexico.

"The Cascajal Block was discovered by road builders in the late 1990s in a pile of debris in the village of Lomas de Tacamichapa in the Veracruz lowlands in the ancient Olmec heartland. The block was found amidst ceramic shards and clay figurines and from these the block is dated to the Olmec archaeological culture's San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán phase, which ended c. 900 BCE, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BCE. Archaeologists Carmen Rodriguez and Ponciano Ortiz of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico examined and registered it with government historical authorities. It weighs about 11.5 kg (25 lb) and measures 36 cm × 21 cm × 13 cm."

"The Olmec flourished in the Gulf Coast region of Mexico, ca. 1250–400 BCE. The evidence for this writing system is based solely on the text on the Cascajal Block.

"The block holds a total of 62 glyphs, some of which resemble plants such as corn and ananas, or animals such as insects and fish. Many of the symbols are more abstract boxes or blobs. The symbols on the Cascajal block are unlike those of any other writing system in Mesoamerica, such as in Mayan languages or Isthmian, another extinct Mesoamerican script. The Cascajal block is also unusual because the symbols apparently run in horizontal rows and 'there is no strong evidence of overall organization. The sequences appear to be conceived as independent units of information'. All other known Mesoamerican scripts typically use vertical rows" (Wikipedia article on Cascajal Block, accessed 01-16-2013).

"Writing [in Mesoamerica] was more than likely invented in the Early or Middle Formative period (ca. 1200-600 BC) with the evolution of politically complex societies of the Olmec in the Gulf Coast region of Mexico, in addition to Guerrero, Oaxaca, central Mexico, and Central America. Olmec civilization had large settlements, herditary elites, interregional trade, and elite art, all of which provided important pre-conditions for the development of writing. Numerous greenstone plaques and celts owned by elites, such as the 'Humboldt Celt' and Tlaltenco Celt,' exhibit iconography and short inscriptions. Unfortunately all early writing in Mesoamerica remains undeciphered, but the signs probably include noble titles, god names, and calendar dates" 

"A few years ago, scholars reported an inscription on a serpentine block discovered during modern construction at Cascajal, Veracruz, near the Olmec site of San Lorenzo. Recent studies of the stone support its antiquity, and it may be associated with Middle Formative-period pottery and iconography. But the stone's exact provenance and date are unknown. The incised signs resemble other Olmec hieroglyphs, they repeat in obvious patterns, and the text possibly has a top-down, left to right reading order similar to other Mesoamerican scripts. Ceramic figurines found by archaeologists at the site of Canton Corralito, Chiapas, Mexico, dated to about 1300-1000 BC exhibit similar writing" (Joel W. Palka, "The Development of Maya Writing" IN: Woods (ed) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 226).

María del Carmen Rodríquez Martínez, Ponciano Ortiz Ceballos, et al "Oldest Writing in the New World," Science  313 no. 5793 (September 15, 2006), 1610-1614 

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The "Chicago Syllabary" Circa 900 BCE

The "Chicago Syllabary," a cuneiform lexical list of unknown provenance, dating from the first millennium BCE, is thought to contain content compiled earlier in the second millenium. 

"The text gives the Sumerian and Akkadian pronunciations of various cuneiform signs along with their names. As such, the text provides unique insights into how the ancients understood and analyzed their languages and the cuneiform script. The list is organized by sign shape. The table consists of two halves, with each half divided into four columns. The first column gives the pronunciations of a given sign and the second column gives the corresponding graph. The third column gives the name of the sign as given by the Babylonian compilers (in some cases a descriptive designation that blends Sumerian and Akkadian), while the fourth column gives the corresponding Akkadian pronunciation. In addition to the importance of its content, the text examplies the development of the cuneiform script in the first millenium BC" (Woods, Teeter, Emberling (eds) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] No. 60).

 The Chicago Syllabary is preserved in The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

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Perhaps the Oldest Surviving Tablet with a European Alphabet Circa 800 BCE

A writing tablet in Greek/Phoenician dating from this time may be:

"the oldest European alphabet, the oldest writing tablet extant, and part of the world's oldest book in codex form. The other old writing tablets are 2 from Nimrod [Nimrud], one ivory, the other walnut wood, dated 707 - 705 BC., in addition to a 8th c. BC Neo-Hittite wood tablet. (Roberts/Skeat: The Birth of the Codex, pp. 11-12.) Apart from the present MS the oldest Greek inscription of any length is the Dipylon oinochoe from Athens, ca. 740 BC. The oldest short inscriptions are dated ca. mid 8th c. BC. A tablet originally bound with the present ones is: "The Würzburger Alphabettafel", published by A. Henbeck: Würzburger Jahrbücher für Altertumswissenschaft, 12, pp. 7-20, 1986. The codex originally consisted of at least 5 tablets. . . .The Alphabet is repeated over and over, and contains the North Semitic (Phoenician) number of letters (22), ayin/aleph to taw/tau in Phoenician and Greek order, written in continuous retrograde lines. It represents the earliest and most complete link between Greek letter forms and the North Semitic parent forms. . . ." (Schøyen Collection MS 108, accessed 02-19-2014).

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The First Olympic Games Take Place 776 BCE

According to ancient Greek records, which also represent the adoption in Greece of the Phoenician alphabet, from which all other Western alphabets are descended, the first Olympic games took place in 776 BCE. The date is based on inscriptions, found at Olympia, of the winners of a foot race held every four years, starting in 776 BCE.

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Standardization of the Homeric Texts Possibly Begins Circa 750 BCE


Many scholars believe that the Iliad is the oldest extant work of literature in the ancient Greek language, making it one of the first works of ancient Greek literature. It is believed that the Odyssey, sequel to the Iliad, was composed after the Iliad. Both epic poems, products of the oral tradition, may have undergone a process of standardization and refinement out of older material around 750 BCE. The standardization of the Homeric texts may have been caused by the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos (d. 527/8 BCE) who reformed the recitation of Homeric poetry at the Panathenaic festival, which he initiated. This reform may have involved the production of a canonical written text. A tradition concerning the role of Peisistratos in the standardization of Homer was current in the ancient world; however, T. W. Allen, in his classic work, Homer: The Origins and Transmission (1924) refuted this theory in his chapter "Pisistratus and Homer."  

When the Homeric poems would have taken on a fixed written form is debatable. According to the traditional 'transcription hypothesis', a non-literate 'Homer' dictated his poem to a literate scribe in the 6th century or earlier. However, in view of the way that texts were written on papyrus before the Hellenistic period, a canonical text would probably have been impossible at this time. Reynolds & Wilson wrote:

"Finally it should be emphasized that the text as arranged on the papyrus was much harder for the reader to interpret than in any modern book. Punctuation was usually rudimentary at best. Texts were written without word-division, and it was not until the middle ages that a real effort was made to alter this convention in Greek or Latin texts (in a few Latin texts of the classical period a point is placed after each word). The system of accentuation, which might have compensated for this difficulty in Greek, was not invented until the Hellenistic period, and for a long time after its invention it was not universally used; here again it is not until the early middle ages that the writing of accents becomes normal practice. In dramatic texts throughout antiquity changes of speaker were not indicated with the precision now thought necessary; it was enough to write a horizontal stroke at the beginning of a line, or two points one above the other, like the modern English colon, for changes elsewhere; the names of the characters were frequently omitted. . . . Another and perhaps even stranger feature of books in the pre-Hellenistic period is that lyric verse was written as if it were prose; the fourth-century papyrus of Timotheus (P. Berol. 9875) is an instance, and even without this valuable document the fact could have been inferred from the tradition that Aristophanes of Byzantium (c. 257-180 BCE) devised the colometry which makes clear the metrical units of the poetry (Dion. Hal. de comp.verb. 156, 221). It is to be noted that the difficulties facing the reader of an ancient book were equally troublesome to the man who wished to transcribe his own copy. The risk of misinterpretation and consequent corruption of the text in this period is not to be underestimated. It is certain that a high proportion of the most serious corruptions in classical texts go back to this period and were already widely current in the books that eventually entered the library of the Museum of Alexandria" (Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars, 3rd ed. [1991] 4-5).

"Though evincing many features characteristic of oral poetry, the Iliad and Odyssey were at some point committed to writing. The Greek script, adapted from a Phoenician syllabary around 800 BCE, made possible the notation of the complex rhythms and vowel clusters that make up hexameter verse. Homer's poems appear to have been recorded shortly after the alphabet's invention: an inscription from Ischia in the Bay of Naples, ca. 740 BCE, appears to refer to a text of the Iliad; likewise, illustrations seemingly inspired by the Polyphemus episode in the Odyssey are found on Samos, Mykonos and in Italy in the first quarter of the seventh century BCE. We have little information about the early condition of the Homeric poems, but Alexandrian editors stabilized the text in the second century BCE, from which all modern texts descend" (Wikipedia article on Homer, accessed 11-27-2008).

(This entry was last revised on 05-03-2014.)

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The "Fatal Letter" in the Iliad: Introduction of Written Language to the Greeks Circa 750 BCE


In the mid-eighth century BCE the Greeks are thought to have developed their own writing system based on the Phoenician alphabet, along with the use of wax tablets, and the leather roll for writing. The Phoenicians, whose culture was at its peak from circa 1200-800 BCE, were the first state-level society to make extensive use of the alphabet; the Phoenician phonetic alphabet is generally considered the ancestor of almost all modern alphabets. However, it did not contain any vowels; those were added by the Greeks. From a traditional linguistic perspective, the Phoenicians spoke Phoenician, a Canaanite dialect. However, due to the very slight differences in language, and the insufficient records of the time, whether Phoenician formed a separate and united dialect, or was merely a superficially defined part of a broader language continuum, is unclear. Through their maritime trade, the Phoenicians spread the use of the alphabet to North Africa and Europe, where it was adopted by the Greeks. The Greeks later passed it on to the Etruscans, who in turn transmitted it to the Romans. In addition to many stone inscriptions, the Phoenicians are believed to have left numerous other types of written sources, but most have not survived.

The earliest surviving examples of writing in Greek are on tablets made of metal. The first reference in written Greek literature to writing tablets appears in Homer, and in one place in the Iliad only: the narrated tale of Bellerophon (Iliad vi.155–203), which introduced the trope of the "fatal letter," with its message sealed within the folded tablets that read "Kill the bearer of this." As Homer was the product of the oral tradition, the reference to written tablets was an anachronism in a narrative of an event that had transpired generations before the Trojan War, and long before the Greeks had a written language. However, the "fatal letter" story helps date the earliest possible recension of the epic to the mid-eighth century, when writing was introduced to Greece. 

In his Histories Herodotus wrote:

"So these Phoenicians, including the Gephyraians, came with Kadmos and settled this land, and they transmitted much lore to the Hellenes, and in particular, taught them the alphabet which, I believe, the Hellenes did not have previously, but which was originally used by all Phoenicians. With the passage of time, both the sound and the shape of the letters changed. Because at this time it was mostly Ionians who lived around the Phoenicians, they were the ones who were first instructed in the use of the alphabet by them, and after making a few changes to the form of the letters, they put them to good use; but when they spoke of them, they called them 'Phoenician' letters, which was only right since these letters had been introduced to Hellas by Phoenicians. Furthermore, the Ionians have called papyrus scrolls 'skins,' since long ago, when papyrus was scarce, they used the skins of goats and sheep instead. In fact, even in my time many barbarians still write on such skins" (Strassler [ed] The Landmark Herodotus [2007] 5.58, 391).

(This entry was last revised on 03-19-2014.)

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One of the Two Oldest Records of the Greek Alphabet Circa 740 BCE

The ancient Greek wine jug bearing the Dipylon inscription.

The Dipylon inscription, a short text written on an ancient Greek pottery vessel, is, along with the  Cup of Nestor from Pithikoussai, one of the two oldest known examples of the use of the Greek alphabet.

"The text is scratched on a wine jug (oenochoe), which was found in 1871 and is named after the location where it was found, the ancient Dipylon Cemetery, near the Dipylon Gate on the area of Kerameikos in Athens. The jug is attributed to the Late Geometrical Period (750-700 BCE), and it has been dated to ca. 740 BCE. It is now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (inv. 192)" (Wikipedia article on Diplyon inscription, accessed 04-25-2009).

(This entry was last revised on April 13, 2014.)

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One of the Two Oldest Known Examples of Writing in Greek Circa 740 BCE – 720 BCE

The Cup of Nestor. (View Larger)

The so-called Cup of Nestor from Pithikoussai, a clay drinking cup (kotyle) was found in 1954 at excavations in a grave in the ancient Greek site of Pithikoussai on the island of Ischia in the Tyrrhenian Sea, at the northern end of the Gulf of Naples. It bears a three-line inscription that was scratched on its side at a later time. This inscription, and the so-called Dipylon inscription from Athens, are the oldest known examples of writing in the Greek alphabet.

The inscription is fragmented, as some shards of the cup are lost. It is written in the early Euboean form of the Western Greek alphabet, written from right to left in three separate lines. The text runs:


This is usually transcribed (in later classical orthography, with the missing parts in brackets) as:

Νέστορος [εἰμὶ] εὔποτ[ον] ποτήριο[ν]·
ὃς δ’ ἂν τοῦδε π[ίησι] ποτηρί[ου] αὐτίκα κῆνον
ἵμερ[ος αἱρ]ήσει καλλιστ[εφάν]ου Ἀφροδίτης.
Nestor’s cup I am, good to drink from.
Whoever drinks this cup empty, straightaway
the desire of beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize.

Pithikoussai was one of the earliest Greek colonies in the West. The cup is dated to the Geometric Period (c.750-700 BCE) and is believed to have been originally manufactured in Rhodes. It is preserved in the Villa Arbusto museum in the village of Lacco Ameno on the island of Ischia, Italy.

Both the Cup of Nestor and the Dipylon inscription have been linked to early writing in the island of Euboea.

Meiggs & Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (1969) No. 1.

(This entry was last revised on April 13, 2014.)

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The Marsiliana Tablet Abecedarium 700 BCE

The earliest Estruscan abecedarium, the Marsiliana d'Albegna tablet, which dates to c. 700 VCE. (View Larger)

It is not clear whether the process of adaptation of the Old Italic or Etruscan alphabet from the Greek alphabet took place in Italy in the city of Cumae, the first Greek colony on the mainland of Italy, or in Greece/Asia Minor. The Etruscan alphabet was a precursor of the Old Latin alphabet, the basis of the Latin alphabet.

"It was in any case a Western Greek alphabet. In the alphabets of the West, X had the sound value [ks], Ψ stood for [kʰ]; in Etruscan: X = [s], Ψ = [kʰ] or [kχ] (Rix 202-209).

"The earliest Etruscan abecedarium, the Marsiliana d'Albegna (near Grosseto) tablet which dates to c. 700 BCE, lists 26 letters corresponding to contemporary forms of the Greek alphabet which retained san and qoppa but which had not yet developed omega.

 In transliteration: "A B G D E V Z H Θ I K L M N Ξ O P Ś Q R S T Y X Φ Ψ"

"21 of the 26 archaic Etruscan letters were adopted for Old Latin from the 7th century BCE, either directly from the Cumae alphabet, or via archaic Etruscan forms, compared to the classical Etruscan alphabet retaining B, D, K, O, Q, X but dropping Θ, Ś, Φ, Ψ, F (Etruscan U is Latin V, Etruscan V is Latin F).

In translieration: "A B C D E F Z H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X"

(Wikipedia article on Old Italic alphabet, accessed 08-02-2009).

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The Taylor Prism and the Sennacherib Prism 689 BCE – 691 BCE

The Taylor Prism, ME 91032 of the British Library. (View Larger)

The Taylor Prism, a six-sided baked clay document (or prism) was discovered at the Assyrian capital Nineveh, in an area known today as Nebi Yunus, now Iraq. It was acquired by Colonel R. Taylor, British Consul General at Baghdad, in 1830, after whom it is named. The British Museum purchased it from Taylor's widow in 1855.

One of the first major Assyrian documents discovered, the Taylor Prism played an important part in the decipherment of cuneiform script.

"The prism is a foundation record, intended to preserve King Sennacherib's achievements for posterity and the gods. The record of his account of his third campaign (701 BC) is particularly interesting to scholars. It involved the destruction of forty-six cities of the state of Judah and the deportation of 200,150 people. Hezekiah, king of Judah, is said to have sent tribute to Sennacherib. This event is described from another point of view in the Old Testament books of 2 Kings and Isaiah. Interestingly, the text on the prism makes no mention of the siege of Lachish which took place during the same campaign and is illustrated in a series of panels from Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh" (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_taylor_prism.aspx, accessed 12-26-2009).

♦ Another version of the same text, produced in the same prism format, and known as the Sennacherib Prism, was purchased by James Henry Breasted from a Baghdad antiques dealer in 1919 for the Oriental Institute of Chicago, where it is preserved. The two known complete examples of Sennacherib's inscription are nearly identical, although the dates on the prisms show that they were written sixteen months apart, the Taylor Prism in 691 BCE and the Oriental Institute prism in 689 BCE. There are also at least eight other fragmentary prisms preserving parts of this text, all in the British Museum, and most of them containing just a few lines.

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Knowledge as Power: King Ashurbanipal Forms the Earliest Systematically Collected Library as Distinct from an Archive 668 BCE – 627 BCE

In an effort to collect all knowledge, Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria from 668 to 627 BCE, collected a library at his capital city Nineveh, containing, it has been estimated, 20,000–30,000 clay tablets written in cuneiform script

"Ashurbanipal was one of the few Assyrian kings to have been trained in the scribal arts—by one Balasî , a senior royal scholar " (Robson, "The Clay Tablet Book," Eliot & Rose (eds) A Companion to the History of the Book [2007] 75).

"Recent cataloguing in the British Museum has enumerated some 3,700 scholarly tablets from Ashurbanipal's Library written in Babylonian script and dialect—about 13 percent of the entire library. Ashurbanipal's obsession with Babylonian books did not, then, completely overwhelm indigenous production, but he did view them as highly valuable cultural capital; their forced removal to Nineveh undermined Babylonian claims to the intellectual heritage of the region and thus pretensions to political hegemony, while reinforcing Ashurbanipal's own self-image as guardian of Mesopotamian culture and power" (Robson, op. cit., 77).

The library was discovered at Nineveh by archaeologist/explorer Austen Henry Layard in 1849, and is considered the earliest systematically collected library, as distinct from a government archive. Clay tablets such as those in Ashburbanipal's library, or other cuneiform archives, were not typically fired in kilns for preservation. However, it is thought that a significant portion of Ashurbanipal's library survived to the present because the clay tablets were baked in fires set during the Median sack of Nineveh in 612 CE. Layard published an account of his discovery of the library in Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon (2 vols., 1853) from which Clark, The Care of Books, page 2, reproduced the floor-plan of Ashurbanipal's record room:

"The tablets have been sorted under the following heads: History; Law; Science; Magic; Dogma; Legends: and it has been shewn (1) that there was a special functionary to take charge of them; (2) that they were arranged in series, with special precautions for keeping the tablets forming a particular series in their proper sequence; (3) that there was a general catalogue and probably a class-catalogue as well" (Clark, p. 4). 

To deter thieves, Ashurbanipal had the following curse written on many or all of his tablets. It is the earliest known book curse, and because it was also a means of identifying his property it might also be considered an early ex-libris, albeit a verbose one:

“I have transcribed upon tablets the noble products of the work of the scribe which none of the kings who have gone before me had learned, together with the wisdom of Nabu insofar as it existeth [in writing]. I have arranged them in classes, I have revised them and I have placed them in my palace, that I, even I, the ruler who knoweth the light of Ashur, the king of the gods, may read them. Whosoever shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe his name on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land" (Drogin, Anathema! [1983] 52-53).

In 1872 English Assyriologist George Smith of the British Museum edited the surviving records of Ashurbanipal's life on clay cylinders and tablets and issued cuneiform transcriptions with interlinear translations as History of Assurbanipal, Translated from the Cuneiform Inscriptions (1872).

The surviving portion of Ashurbanipal's library includes 660 cuneiform tablets that concern medicine. These were published in facsimile for the first time, but without translation, by Reginald C. Thompson as Assyrian Medical Texts. From the Originals in the British Museum (1923).

Menant, La bibliothèque du palais de Ninive (1880). 

(This entry was last revised on 12-27-2014.)

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The Constitutional Law of Dreros: The Earliest Surviving Greek Law on Stone Circa 650 BCE – 600 BCE

The Constitutional Law of Dreros was carved on a block of grey schist at the temple of Apollo Delphinios at Dreros (Δρῆρος, Driros), a post-Minoan site near Neapoli in the regional unit of Lasithi, Crete, around 650-600 BCE. Apollo Delphinios was a sea-god especially worshiped in Crete and in the Greek islands; his name indicates his connection with Delphi, and the holy serpent Delphyne ("womb"). The inscription may be the earliest surviving Greek law on stone, and, it is certainly the earliest which survived complete. The law is one of a group of eight, of which one was written in Eteocretan, excavated from the same temple. It may provide evidence of the existence within the ancient Greek world of non-Athenian experiments in government by assembly.

Meiggs & Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (1969) No. 2 (pp. 2-3 provide the following translation of the law:

"May God be kind (?). The city has  thus decided; when a man has been kosmos, the same man shall not be kosmos again for ten years. If he does act as kosmos, whatever, judgements he gives, he shall owe double, and he shall lose his rights to office, as long as he lives, and whatever he does as kosmos shall be nothing. The swearers shall be the kosmos (.e. the body of kosmoi) and the damioi, and twenty of the city."

Meiggs & Lewis p. 3 provide the following technical commentary on the law:

"The ratification formula with its use of πóλις against the normal Cretan ethnic may reasonably be claimed as an early piece of evidence for the concept of the polis. The word does not appear elsewhere epigraphically until the late sixth century Kyzikos, Thasos, Arkesine, Poseidonia. . . .We have no means of telling whether the word implies the participation of the assembly as Willetts claims, or merely the authority of the city's officials (Ehrenberg).

"The law forbids the repeated tenure of the office of kosmos, presumably, as elsewhere in Crete, the chief magistracy, before ten years have elapsed. The provision is paralleled at Gortyn. . . sixth century, and it has generally been explained there by the need to make a break in the financial and legal immunity of a magistrate. The length of time which has to elapse in Dreros, however, suggests strongly that the motive was rather to limit the possibilities of using the office as a stepping-stone to tyranny (the first editors) or to bolster the power of an individual family (Ehrenberg, Willets). How severe the penalty involved was depends on whether ακρηστος implies total deprivation of civic rights or deprivation merely of the right to hold certain magistracies. Dispute over the implications of the word involves the interpretation of the phrase χρηστους ποîεν in the archaic treaty between Sparta and Tegea (Plutarch, Greek Questions, 5. . . . ).

"The list of those who swear the oath, presumably every year, includes two unknown offices. The δαμιοι have been generally identified with the Gortynian τιται as financial supervisors. 'The twenty of the city' have been identified as a committee of the assembly (Willetts) a committtee of the council (the first editors), the council itself (Ehrenberg).The last seems the most probable."

 According to Maria Fout and John Keane of thelifeanddeathofdemocracy.org, the inscription, which was formerly preserved in the Dreros Museum, was, as of 2009, preserved in the  Archaeological Museum of Agios Nikolaos in Agios Nikolaos, Crete.

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The Skytale: An Early Greek Cryptographic Device Used in Warfare Circa 650 BCE

The skytale (scytale, σκυτάλη "baton"), a cylinder with a strip of parchment wrapped around it on which was written a message, was used by the ancient Greeks and Spartans to communicate secretly during military campaigns. It was first mentioned by the Greek poet Archilochus (fl. 7th century BCE), but the first clear indication of its use as a cryptographic device appeared in the writings of the poet and Homeric scholar, Apollonius of Rhodes, who also served as librarian at the Royal Library of Alexandria. 

Plutarch, writing in the first century CE, provided the first detailed description of the operation of the skytale:

The dispatch-scroll is of the following character. When the ephors send out an admiral or a general, they make two round pieces of wood exactly alike in length and thickness, so that each corresponds to the other in its dimensions, and keep one themselves, while they give the other to their envoy. These pieces of wood they call scytalae. Whenever, then, they wish to send some secret and important message, they make a scroll of parchment long and narrow, like a leathern strap, and wind it round their scytale, leaving no vacant space thereon, but covering its surface all round with the parchment. After doing this, they write what they wish on the parchment, just as it lies wrapped about the scytale; and when they have written their message, they take the parchment off and send it, without the piece of wood, to the commander. He, when he has received it, cannot otherwise get any meaning out of it,--since the letters have no connection, but are disarranged,--unless he takes his own scytale and winds the strip of parchment about it, so that, when its spiral course is restored perfectly, and that which follows is joined to that which precedes, he reads around the staff, and so discovers the continuity of the message. And the parchment, like the staff, is called scytale, as the thing measured bears the name of the measure.
—Plutarch, Lives (Lysander 19), ed. Bernadotte Perrin (quoted in Wikipedia article on Scytale, accessed 04-05-2014).

From Plutarch's description we might draw the conclusion that the skytale was used to transmit a transposition cipher. However, because earlier accounts do not confirm Plutarch's account, and because of the cryptographic weakness of the device, it was suggested that the skytale was used for conveying messages in plaintext, and that Plutarch's description is mythological. Another hypothesis is that the skytale was used for "message authentication rather than encryption. Only if the sender wrote the message around a scytale of the same diameter as the receiver's would the receiver be able to read it. It would therefore be difficult for enemy spies to inject false messages into the communication between two commanders" (Wikipedia article on Scytale, accessed 08-05-2014).

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The God of Writing. . . . Circa 646 BCE

ABout 646 BCE King Ashurbanipal recorded his rebuilding of Ezida, the temple of Nabû, the god of writing in Nineveh, on a limestone slab in Neo Assyrian cuneiform script:


(Schøyen Collection MS 2180, accessed 02-19-2014).

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Construction of the Etemenanki Ziggurat, Later Known as The Tower of Babel 604 BCE – 562 BCE

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The tower of Babel, ca. 1556

Under King Nebuchadnezzar II, the king who is named more than 90 times in the Old Testament, the restoration and enlargement of the Etemenanki ziggurat in Babylon was completed after 43 years of labor. The ziggurat was originally built around the time of Hammurabi. It has been calculated that for its construction at least 17 million bricks had to be made and fired.

Some of these bricks were stamped with inscriptions in cuneiform. Eventually the ziggurat became known as the Tower of Babel, and the few bricks from this that survive are known as "Tower of Babel bricks" or Nebuchadnezzar II bricks. In his Typographia: an historical sketch of the origin and progress of the Art of Printing (1825) 2-7 printer and historian of printing Thomas Curson Hansard called these bricks "the first step toward the art of printing." 

“Babylon with the ziggurat was captured by Kyros 538 BC, Dareios I 519 BC, Xerxes ca. 483 BC, and entirely destroyed by Alexander I the Great in 331 BC. It is this tall stepped temple tower which is referred to in Genesis 11:1-9, and became known as ’The Tower of Babel’. The bricks are specifically mentioned in Genesis 11:3: ’Come, let us make bricks and bake them in the fire. — For stone they used bricks and for mortar they used bitumen’. The black bitumen is still visible on the back of the present baked brick. These bricks are considered so important and interesting that British Museum had their copy on exhibit with special handout descriptions, from where parts of the present information is taken. For a stele illustrating The Tower of Babel, see MS 2063. Nebuchadnezzar II was the founder of the New Babylonian empire. He captured Jerusalem in 596 and 586 BC, burnt down the temple and all of Jerusalem, carried its treasures off to Babylon, and took the Jews into captivity (2 kings 24-25). Nebuchadnezzar II is the king who is named more than 90 times in the Old Testament. Daniel 1-4 is almost entirely devoted to the description of his greatness and reign, his rise and fall, and submission to God” (Schøyen Collection MS 1815/1).

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A Nebuchadnezzar II Babylonian Cylinder Sets an Auction Record Circa 604 BCE – 562 BCE

On April 9, 2014, Doyle New York auctioned a Nebuchadnezzar II (Nabu-kudurri-usur) Babylonian cuneiform cylinder that described the rebuilding of the temple of Shamash in Sippar (modern Tell Abu Habbah in Iraq) by Nebuchadnezzar II, and dated to the Neo-Babylonian Period, circa 604-562 BCE. Measuring 8 1/4 inches (20.8 cm) in length, it was the largest example to come to market in recent times. The cylinder was described as, "double-tapered barrel-shaped cylinder of baked clay, 8 1/4 inches (20.8 cm) in length, tapering from 3 1/4 inches (8 cm) at center to 2 1/4 inches (6 cm) at the ends. Text in two columns, approximately 35 lines. Very light wear to the surface but with no apparent loss of legibility; a short and minor fissure, apparently created at the time of forming or firing, visible on a blank area of the cylinder, overall in sound condition." 

It was customary for the kings of Babylon to cement their relationship with the gods by restoring their temples. These accomplishments were then recorded in cuneiform on clay cylinders prepared by a court scribe, which were buried in the foundations of the restored temples. The cylinders were enduring commemorations of the king's fealty to the gods. This very public act also helped to create the appearance of legitimacy for the ruler. For example, the Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum, extols Cyrus as a benefactor. He had attained the throne by deposing the Babylonian king Nabonidus, and he apparently believed that this and similar ritual acts would legitimize his standing with both the gods and his subjects.

The cuneiform cylinder sold by Doyle came from Sippar, a great complex of temples, the cult site of the Akkadian sun god Shamash, and the home of his temple E-babbara. The text was in two columns, and followed text number 16, published both in Babylonian and German, in Langdon, Die neubabylonischen Konigsinschriften (1912) 141 et seq. Berger, in Die neubabylonischen Konigsinchriften (1973) listed seven extant examples of this cylinder, of which five are in the British Museum, and two in the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin. The specimen auctioned by Doyle was slightly larger than any others recorded.

The auction house published this approximate translation of the text of the cylinder:

"Column I. 
"NEBUCHADNEZZAR, King of Babylon, the Wise, the Provider, Favorite of Marduk, Sakkanakku of the lands of Sumer and Akkad, who established the foundation of the lands; the Venerated Ruler whom Marduk, the Great Lord, has chosen to renew the Holy Sanctuaries and maintain the cities as his calling: into whose hands Nebo, the Victorious Son gave the scepter of prosperity to extend the lands for Man's guidance; the understanding and reverent, the maintainer of E-sagila and E-zida; the first-born Son of Nabopolassar, King of Babylon am I. 
When Marduk, the Great Lord, joyfully created me and called me into the Kingship with an eternal name, I thought reverently of Him and of His Divinity. But I continue humbly to worship Nebo, His legitimate Son, patron of my kingdom; I praise his glory. 
I endowed E-Sagila and E-zida, their favored palaces, with gold, silver, precious jewels and tall cedars, and made them shine forth like the innermost heavens. I beautified in splendor the holy sanctuaries of the great Gods, according to the wish of their hearts. E-barra, the radiant abode of the Gods, the dwelling-place of Samas, the Judge, which had long ago fallen into disrepair in Sippar; which no previous king had built, Samas the Lord ordered me, the Ruler, His favorite, to rebuild. I found its old cornerstone, and took notice of it. Over its old cornerstone I laid its foundation. I erected E-barra as it was of yore and completed it. I caused it to shine like the bright day, I caused Samas and Ai to return in gladness and rejoicing to their exalted dwelling. At that time, since time immemorable little had been left at E-ulla, the temple of Ninkarrak in Sippar. 

"Column II. 
"The temple building was in disrepair, the outer walls had crumbled, the foundation was no longer recognizable; it was buried in the dust; it was no longer numbered among the Holy Sanctuaries of the Gods; the tithes had ceased; they had vanished from the speech of the peoples; the offerings were no longer being made. 
Because I held the hem of the garment of Marduk, My Lord, and he was gracious unto me, He entrusted unto my hands the renewal of the Holy Sanctuaries, the restoring of the Edifices. 
During my legitimate reign, the merciful Marduk chose to look with favor upon that temple, and Samas, the exalted Judge, ordered its renewal. They ordered me, the shepherd who worships them, to build; I found its old cornerstone and took notice of it. The name of Nikarrak, whose throne is in E-ulla, was inscriped on the image of a dog and was there plainly to be seen. Over the old cornerstone I established the foundation for Ninkarrak, my beloved Mistress, Guardian of my soul, who brings prosperity to my kinsmen; for her I rebuilt E-ulla, her temple in Sippar. Its tithes I enriched and its offerings I restored. O Ninkarrak, Exalted Mistress, look graciously upon the work of my hands. May my acts of devotion be made known to Thy lips. Grant unto me long life, many descendants, good health, and a joyful heart. Present my deeds favorably unto Samas and Marduk; speak in my behalf." 

Provenance being essential for the authenticity and title of archaeological artifacts, this cylinder had belonged to Ellen Shaffer, Rare Book Librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and had been sold to Archie P. Johnston in 1953. The hammer price was $500,000, which with the buyer's premium, meant that the price realized was $605,000. This was the highest price realized for a Babylonian Cylinder to date.

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Ancient Shopping Lists on Ostracons Reveal Spread of Literacy at Fort in Arad, israel Circa 600 BCE

Computer analysis of shopping lists written on pottery, known as ostracons, found in the Judahite desert fortress of Arad, Israel, indicate a wider spread of literacy in Israel toward the end of the First Temple period around 600 BCE. Based on a statistical analysis of the results, and taking into account the content of the texts that were chosen for the sample, researchers concluded that at least six different hands wrote the 16 notes at around the same time. From this evidence it appears that even soldiers in the lower ranks of the Judahite army could read and write.

Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin, et al. "Algorithmic handwriting analysis of Judah’s military correspondence sheds light on composition of biblical texts," PNAS, 113, No. 17


"Scholars debate whether the first major phase of compilation of biblical texts took place before or after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Proliferation of literacy is considered a precondition for the creation of such texts. Ancient inscriptions provide important evidence of the proliferation of literacy. This paper focuses on 16 ink inscriptions found in the desert fortress of Arad, written ca. 600 BCE. By using novel image processing and machine learning algorithms we deduce the presence of at least six authors in this corpus. This indicates a high degree of literacy in the Judahite administrative apparatus and provides a possible stage setting for compilation of biblical texts. After the kingdom’s demise, a similar literacy level reemerges only ca. 200 BCE.


"The relationship between the expansion of literacy in Judah and composition of biblical texts has attracted scholarly attention for over a century. Information on this issue can be deduced from Hebrew inscriptions from the final phase of the first Temple period. We report our investigation of 16 inscriptions from the Judahite desert fortress of Arad, dated ca. 600 BCE—the eve of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem. The inquiry is based on new methods for image processing and document analysis, as well as machine learning algorithms. These techniques enable identification of the minimal number of authors in a given group of inscriptions. Our algorithmic analysis, complemented by the textual information, reveals a minimum of six authors within the examined inscriptions. The results indicate that in this remote fort literacy had spread throughout the military hierarchy, down to the quartermaster and probably even below that rank. This implies that an educational infrastructure that could support the composition of literary texts in Judah already existed before the destruction of the first Temple. A similar level of literacy in this area is attested again only 400 y later, ca. 200 BCE."

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More than 10,000 Stone Inscriptions Were Excavated from the Ancient Agora of Athens 600 BCE – 267 CE

During twentieth century excavations of the Ancient Agora of Athens more than 10,000 stone inscriptions were identified and inventoried. The texts included diplomatic agreements, commemorative plaques for athletic victories, records of court judgments, boundary stones identifying different buildings, and fragmentary inscriptions featuring names of over 30,000 individual Athenians. 

Thompson & Wycherley, The Agora of Athens: The History, Shape, and Uses of an Ancient City Center (1972).

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One of the Earliest Latin Inscriptions in Rome Circa 570 BCE – 550 BCE

A Latin inscription on a stone block found in excavations of the Lapis Niger, an ancient shrine in the Roman Forum, is one of the earliest Latin inscriptions in Rome. Since it is chronologically closer to the original borrowing of the Greek alphabet by peoples of Italy from Italian Greek colonies, such as Cumae, the lettering on the stone block is closer to Greek letters than any known Latin lettering. The inscription is also written boustrophedon — alternating between right to left and left to right. Many of the oldest Greek and Latin inscriptions are written in this style. The meaning of the inscription is unclear, as the beginning and end are missing, and only one-third to one-half of each line survives. However, it appears to dedicate the shrine to a king, and to level grave curses at anyone who dares disturb it.

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The Duenos Inscription Circa 550 BCE

The DUENOS inscription, found by Heinrich Dressel in 1880 on a vase on Quirnal Hill in Rome, is the second earliest known Old Latin text. It is inscribed on the sides of a kernos, in this case a trio of small globular vases adjoined by three clay struts. The kernos is preserved in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin (inventory no. 30894,3).

Old Latin, the precursor of classical Latin, is known from non-book writing, such as stone inscriptions.

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The Oldest Known Work on Military Strategy Circa 550 BCE

The Yinqueshan bamboo strips, the earliest manuscript of Sun Tzu's 'Art of War,' on exhibition in a Chinese museum. (View Larger)

About 550 BCE it is believed that the Chinese general and military strategist Sun Wu ( 孙武, 孫武, Sūn Wǔ), style name Changqing (長卿), better known as Sun Tzu (孙子, 孫子, Sūn Zǐ]) wrote The Art of War (孫子兵法; Sūn Zǐ Bīng Fǎ). Later called one of the Seven Military Classics of ancient China, The Art of War is the oldest and most influential work on military strategy.

"Sun Tzu suggested the importance of positioning in strategy and that position is affected both by objective conditions in the physical environment and the subjective opinions of competitive actors in that environment. He thought that strategy was not planning in the sense of working through an established list, but rather that it requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions. Planning works in a controlled environment, but in a changing environment, competing plans collide, creating unexpected situations" (Wikipedia article on The Art of War, accessed 01-30-2010).

Sun Tzu's work was first published in a European language in the French translation of French Jesuit in China Jean Joseph Marie Amiot as Art militaire des Chinois, ou recueil d'ancients traités sur la guerre ... on y a joint dix préceptes addressés aux troupes parl'Empereur Young-Techeng (Paris, 1772). That edition was illustrated with 33 plates. The text was first translated into English by British officer Everard Ferguson Calthrop in 1905, and by Andrew Giles in 1910. Since then there have been many different English translations. In French translation the work probably influenced Napoleon. Since then it has continued to influence military and political leaders of many nationalities, and its precepts have also been applied to business and managerial strategies.

Because of the destruction of information that took place in 213 BCE at the instigation of the Qin Emperor, the earliest known manuscript of Sun Tzu's text consists of 13 fragments of chapters among the 4942 bamboo strips known as the Yinqueshan Han Slips, which were discovered in April 1972 in Yinqueshan Tombs no. 1 and 2 at the foot of Yinqueshan (Sliver Sparrow Mountain) southeast of the city of Linyi in the province of Shandong, China. Each bamboo strip is about 28 centimeters long, 0.7 centimeter wide and 0.2 centimeter thick. The characters on the bamboo slips were written in lishu, a clerical script from the Han Dynasty.

"The time of burial for both tombs had been dated to about 140 BC/134 BC and 118 BC, the texts having been written on the bamboo slips before then. After restoration and arrangement, the slips were organised into a sequential order of nine groups and 154 sections. The first group included 13 fragment chapters from Sunzi's The Art of War, and 5 undetermined chapters; the second group were the 16 chapters of Sun Bin's Art of War, which had been missing for at least 1,400 years; the third included the 7 original and lost chapters from the Six Strategies (before this significant find only the titles of the lost chapters were known); the fourth and fifth included 5 chapters from the Wei Liaozi and 16 chapters from the Yanzi; the rest of the groups included anonymous writings" (Wikipedia article on Yinqueshan Han Slips, accessed 01-30-2010).

(This entry was last revised on 06-13-2015.)

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The Greek Origin of Monumental Roman Stone Inscriptions Circa 550 BCE

In his classic series of lectures, Politics and Script, delivered in 1957, typographer and historian of typography and calligraphy Stanley Morison traced the monumental stone inscriptions of the Romans, from which many of the classic Roman typefaces descend, to a gravestone from Melos (Milos), Greece.  He wrote concerning an inscription carved in marble on a gravestone from Melos preserved in the Staatliches Museum, Berlin (I.G. xii. 3. 1130) that

"the shapes of its letters are those upon which all others depend. It will be seen that they are 'square'. That is not to say that the letters are all perfectly square, but they may be said to be generally 'square' in comparison with handwriting. This is the only sense in which it can be said that Greek, and for that matter Latin, letters are 'quadrate'. It must be noted that, although in the still earlier inscriptions this could not be said, from the sixth century and throughout the classical period it became the rule.

"There are four primary characteristics of early Greek letter design in the classical period. First, the apparent squareness of the shapes; secondly, the unformity of the stroke; thirdly, the consistence of the complete structure; lastly, the rationality of the shapes in having no unnecessary parts and nothing supurfluous. Thus the script is square, unform, rational, and perfectly functional. . . .

"In describing the scripts and letterings of later periods, different places and other languages, reference will be made to relative plainness of design and equality of width of stroke. If the stroke in the Melos inscriptions appears to us as 'thin' it must be considered that it looks so to us because we are accustomed to a thicker stroke. Among Greeks of the sixth or fifth century B.C. the stroke that we may consider thin was normal. The Latins, as will be seen, used a different method of stroking. This does not yet concern us except to remember constantly that is the Latin stroke that is normal to us in the West. The main element in the design, however, is not the stroke's width but its uniformity. The Greek stroke is not merely thin (for it can be thickened) but it is invariably uniform. This is the first great distinction of fundamental importance to the criticism and classification of Graeco-Roman scripts" (Morison, Politics and Script. Aspects of authority and freedom in the development of Graeco-Latin script from the sixth century B.C. to the twentieth century A.D. The Lyell Lectures 1957. Edited and Completed by Nicolas Barker [1972] 5-7, plate 1 ).

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The Cyrus Cylinder, the Earliest Known Document in the History of Religious Toleration 539 BCE

The front side of the Cyrus Cylinder. (View Larger)


In 539 BEC, after conquering Babylonia, Cyrus II of Persia (Cyrus the Great) permitted various religious groups, including perhaps 40,000 Jews, to return to their native land. Cyrus also issued a declaration inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform on a clay cylinder. The cylinder, which has become known as the Cyrus Cylinder, was discovered in March, 1879 in the foundation of the Ésagila temple in Babylon by the Assyrian Christian Assyriologist and archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam

"The Assyro-British archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam discovered the Cyrus Cylinder in March 1879 during a lengthy programme of excavations in Mesopotamia carried out for the British Museum. It had been placed as a foundation deposit in the foundations of the Ésagila, the city's main temple. Rassam's expedition followed on from an earlier dig carried out in 1850 by the British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, who excavated three mounds in the same area but found little of importance. In 1877, Layard became Britain's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Mesopotamia at the time. He helped Rassam, who had been his assistant in the 1850 dig, to obtain a firman (decree) from the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II to continue the earlier excavations. The firman was only valid for a year but a second firman, with much more liberal terms, was issued in 1878. It was granted for two years (through to 15 October 1880) with the promise of an extension to 1882 if required. The Sultan's decree authorised Rassam to "pack and dispatch to England any antiquities [he] found ... provided, however, there were no duplicates." A representative of the Sultan was instructed to be present at the dig to examine the objects as they were uncovered. 

With permission secured, Rassam initiated a large-scale excavation at Babylon and other sites on behalf of the Trustees of the British Museum. He undertook the excavations in four distinct phases. In between each phase, he returned to England to bring back his finds and raise more funds for further work. The Cyrus Cylinder was found on the second of his four expeditions to Mesopotamia, which began with his departure from London on 8 October 1878. He arrived in his home town of Mosul on 16 November and travelled down the Tigris to Baghdad, which he reached on 30 January 1879. During February and March, he supervised excavations on a number of Babylonian sites, including Babylon itself" (Wikipedia article on Cyrus Cylinder, accessed 03-08-2014).

On the cylinder Cyrus announced a number of reforms that he made after conquering the country. These include arranging for the restoration of temples and organizing the return to their homelands of a number of people who had been held in Babylonia by the Babylonian kings. For these reasons the Cyrus Cylinder has been called the earliest known document in the history of religious toleration. It is preserved in the British Museum. (BM 90920).

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The "Rosetta Stone" of Cuneiform Script 522 BCE – 486 BCE

The Behistun Inscription. (View Larger)

The Behistun Inscription (also Bisitun or Bisutun, Modern Persian: بیستون ; Old Persian: Bagastana, meaning "the god's place or land"),  a multi-lingual stone inscription approximately 15 meters high and 25 meters wide, located on Mount Behistun in  Kermanshah Province, near the city of Kermanshah in western Iran, was written by Darius I, the Great sometime between his coronation as Zoroastrian king of kings of the Achaemenid, or Persian, Empire in the summer of 522 BCE and his death in autumn of 486 BCE.

" . . . the inscription begins with a brief autobiography of Darius I, the Great including his ancestry, lineage etc. Later in the inscription, Darius provides a lengthy sequence of events following the death of Cyrus the Great and Cambyses II in which he fought nineteen battles in a period of one year (ending in December of 521 BC) to put down multiple rebellions throughout the Persian Empire. Darius' inscription states in detail that the rebellions, which had resulted from the deaths of Cyrus the Great and his son Cambyses II, were orchestrated by several impostors and their co-conspirators in various cities throughout the empire, each of whom falsely proclaimed kinghood during the upheaval following Cyrus the Great's death. Darius the Great proclaimed himself victorious in all battles during the period of upheaval, attributing his success to the "grace of Ahuramazda (God)".

"The inscription includes three versions of the same text, written in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian. Babylonian was a later form of Akkadian: unlike Old Persian, they are Semitic languages. In effect, then, the inscription is to cuneiform what the Rosetta Stone is to Egyptian hieroglyphs: the document most crucial in the decipherment of a previously lost script.

"Translation of the text was a multi-step and multi-national effort based on earlier work done on the decipherment of the Old Persian script by Georg Friedrich Grotefend in the late 1700's when Grotefend discovered that, unlike Elamite and Babylonian texts, Old Persian text is alphabetic. In the following years, the efforts of [Eugène] Burnouf, [Christian] Lassen, and [Henry] Rawlinson (who had the remainder of the inscription transcribed in two parts, in 1835 and 1843) contributed to translating the Old Persian cuneiform text using the Zoroastrian book Avesta as a key, in addition to cross referencing with modern Persian and Vedic languages. With the Old Persian text deciphered, Rawlinson and others were able to then translate the Elamite and Babylonian texts (both of which were ancient translations of the Old Persian text) after 1843.

"The Inscription is . . . 100 metres up a limestone cliff from an ancient road connecting the capitals of Babylonia and Media (Babylon and Ecbatana, respectively). The mountainside was removed to make the inscription more visible after its completion. The Old Persian text contains 414 lines in five columns; the Elamite text includes 593 lines in eight columns, and the Babylonian text is in 112 lines. The inscription was illustrated by a life-sized bas-relief of Darius I, the Great, holding a bow as a sign of kingship, with his left foot on the chest of a figure lying on his back before him. The prostrate figure is reputed to be the pretender Gaumata. Darius is attended to the left by two servants, and ten one-metre figures stand to the right, with hands tied and rope around their necks, representing conquered peoples. Faravahar floats above, giving his blessing to the king" (Wikipedia article on Behistun Inscription, accessed 12-27-2009).

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The Earliest Surviving Athenian Decree: The Cleruchy on Salamis, Written on Stone 510 BCE – 500 BCE

The earliest surviving Athenian decree concerns the status and obligations of men living on Salamis, an ancient Greek city-state on the east coast of Cyprus. The "Salaminian Decree" may be the earliest example of the stoichedon style of epigraphy. This style, named from στοιχηδόν, a Greek adverb meaning "in a row", was the practice of engraving ancient Greek inscriptions in capitals with the letters aligned vertically as well as horizontally. Texts in this form were composed as if in a grid with the same number of letters in each line and each space in the grid filled with a single letter. There were no spaces between words, and no spaces or punctuation between sentences. This was the dominant style of inscription in Athens during the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, and was the preferred style for official state proclamations. 

In translation the Greek text reads:

"Decided by the demos. Th[ose in S]alam[is who are cleruch]s
shall be allowed to reside on Salamis [-15- to the Athe]ni-
ans to pay taxes and provide milit[ary service]. [But] what is theirs [on Salamis] shall not
be leased, unless a kinsmen(?) is the lessor. [I]-
f someone should lease it, [the lessee and the] l-
essor shall pay a penalty, each [of them -19-]
to the public treasury. [And the transaction shall be handled by the a]-
rchon, if [not, he shall be held accountable at his euth]y[na. The]-
ir weapons they shall f[urnish themselves]; the cost is th]-
irty dr[achmas. Having been armed]
the archon [shall review their weapons.]
The B[ou]le, [in] the year [- c.11 -]"

"In the aftermath of the reforms of Cleisthenes of 508/7 BCE, the new Athenian democracy sought to establish a presence in the Saronic Gulf against its Peloponnesian (led by Sparta) and Isthmian (led by Corinth) opponents. The nearby island of Aegina and the city-state of Corinth adjacent to the Isthmus, the narrow land that connects mainland Greece to the Peloponnese was controlled by Corinth, both had spheres of interest in the Saronic Gulf. These and other poleis or city-states were active members of the Peloponnesian League, which was led by Sparta and included Athens. The island of Salamis, which Athens had seized from Corinth's neighboring polis Megara in the age of Pisistratus the tyrant ca. 560 BCE (Paus1., provided the ideal base for such a presence. This, the earliest extant decree of the Cleisthenic demos, addresses the rights and responsibilities of kleruchoi or cleruchs (Athenian citizens dwelling outside of Athens who retain their citizenship) settled by Athens on the island: cleruchs must pay taxes and provide military services to Athens, they may lease the land only to kinsmen (the text here is fragmentary and may refer instead to a dweller) on penalty of a fine, and they must provide their own weapons. Athenian citizens transplanted to Salamis ensured a visible, physical manifestation of Athenian control of the western entrance to the northern Saronic Gulf" (http://www.skidmore.edu/academics/classics/stoa/salamisdecree.html, accessed 04-15-2014.)

"The main evidence for the date of this important decree lies in the letter forms and the arrangement of the text. The stoichedon character ll. 1-6 shows an early stage in the development of the style, which by 485-4 was mature in Athens. . . . The letter forms might be found at any time between c. 520 and c. 480. They are probably cut by the same craftsman as a dedication on the Acropolis of a statue by Hegias . . ., who is presumably the teacher of Pheidas. This does not, however, compel a date after 490, and, if Salamis is the first Athenian cleruchy, the decree should be dated before the cleruchy sent to Chalkis after the Athenian victory of 506. . . . The period immediately following the reforms of Cleisthenes offers a good context. Athens had broken with Sparta; it would have been a sound precaution to establish a permanent garrison on the island which Megara, with Spartan support, might attempt to recover" (Meiggs & Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (1969) No. 14, p. 27).

Excavated from the Acropolis, the stone fragments are preserved in the Epigraphic Museum in Athens.

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Paper in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica Circa 500 BCE

Around 500 BCE natives of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica manufactured Amatl (Nahuatl: āmatl, Spanish: amate or papel amate) during the first millenium BCE. This was a form of paper made by boiling the inner bark of several species of trees, particularly fig trees (genus Ficus) such as F. cotinifolia and F. padifolia. The resulting fibrous material was pounded with a stone to produce a stretchy and somewhat delicate paper, colored light brown with corrugated lines

"Iconography (in stone) dating from the period contains depictions of items thought to be paper. For example, Monument 52 from the Olmec site of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán illustrates a personage adorned with ear pennants of folded paper." (Wikipedia article on Amatl)

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The Pyrgi Tablets: Bilingual Etruscan and Phoenician Text Inscribed in Gold Circa 500 BCE

In 1964 during an excavation of ancient Pyrgi, the port of the southern Etruscan town of Caere on the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy (now Santa Severa), archaeologist Massimo Pallottino discovered three golden leaves bearing writing in Etruscan and Phoenician. Known as the Pyrgi Tablets, the leaves record a dedication made around 500 BCE by Thefarie Velianas, king of Caere, to the Phoenician goddess ʻAshtaret. Two of the tablets are inscribed in the Etruscan language, the third in Phoenician.

"These writings are important in providing both a bilingual text that allows researchers to use knowledge of Phoenician to interpret Etruscan, and evidence of Phoenician or Punici nfluence in the Western Mediterranean. They may relate to Polybius's report (Hist. 3,22) of an ancient and almost unintelligible treaty between the Romans and the Carthaginians, which he dated to the consulships of L. Iunius Brutus and L. Tarquinius Collatinus (509 BCE)" (Wikipedia article on Pyrgi Tablets, accessed 10-17-2014).

The tablets are preserved in the Museo Nazionale Etrusco in Rome. 

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How Herodotus Used Writing and Messages in his Histories Circa 450 BCE – 420 BCE

As Herodotus (Ἡρόδοτος) was the founder of historical writing, references to written or archival records in his Histories (The History) are of particular interest. By the mid-fifth century BCE writing in Greece had existed for only about 300 years. Because writing was relatively new, and only a small portion of society was literate, it may not be surprising that Herodotus appears to have consulted few written sources in compiling his Histories. From Herodotus's own account it seems that most often he did not find it necessary, or perhaps practical, to verify information that he compiled from personal observation through the consultation of written records. Herodotus also expected his Histories to be read aloud, in which case citing written sources within the Histories might have been a kind of distraction.

Herodotus begins his Histories with a sentence that has been translated in various ways: "Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents his research so that human events do not fade with time."  Another translation of the same sentence reads, "What follows is a performance of the enquiries of Herodotus from Halicarnassus." According to Robert Strassler, editor of The Landmark Herodotus (2007) 3, Proem.b, "This almost certainly implies that Herodotus performed (read aloud) his text, in whole or in part, to an audience gathered to hear him."

Herodotus usually refers to records in the context of government, law, or communication. He often refers to dispatches sent by leaders as part of political or military negotiations, such as dispatches sent in the context of war. He describes attempts to send secret messages. He also refers to records used for the enforcement of laws, which were, of course, in written form. He is aware of both the advantages and disadvantages of writing over oral communication.

"Herodotus recognized the usefulness of writing for interpersonal communication, but he also knew that it could be problematic. Because writing fixed a message in time and space, a written document that seemed objective and straightforward could also be full of paradoxes. In the generation after Herodotus, Socrates would complain (in the dialogue Phaedrus, set down by Plato) that writing represented 'no true wisdom, . . . but only its semblance.' Written words 'seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent,' the philosopher said, 'but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you the same thing for ever.' Even worse, once something is put in writing it 'drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn't know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. '  

"Like Socrates, Herodotus knew that writing was full of ambiguities. Since a written document could not be cross-examined as a speaking person could, it might be used not to inform but to deceive. Themistocles, the Athenian general who led the resistance to the invasion of Xerxes. knew this too. Both sides in the war were vying for the help of the Ionians, descendants of Greek settlers who had colonized the Aegean islands and the adjacent mainland coastal areas of present-day Turkey. Most Ionians sided with the Persians, their powerful near-neighbours, but the Greeks sought their aid on the grounds of common ancestry. Themistocles used the ambiguity of writing to enlist their help, or at least to minimize the potential harm they might do to the Greek cause. He sent men to the "drinkable-water places" where Ionian ships put in for resupply, and he had them cut written messages into the rocks there, urging the Ionians to abandon Xerxes and join the Greek side. His plan was clever: either the Ionians who read the messages would be persuaded to rebel against the Persians, he reasoned, or Xerxes himself would see the messages and distrust his allies, withholding them from the order of battle (8.22). As it happened, only a few Ionians defected to the Greeks (see 8.85), but a more important point had been made: writing could send a deliberately confusing message as well as a direct one. Writing was not always so straightforward as it appeared to be.

"Writing could also be useful for sending messages in secret, and Herodotus provided several examples of how written records promoted secrecy. There was a danger in committing anything to writing since, if the document were intercepted, secrecy would be lost. Histiaeus, who had been made Despot of Miletus by Darius, learned this lesson when he sought through secret messages to stir up a revolt against his benefactor. The King's brother intercepted these letters, read them, and then sent them on to their original destination, having meanwhile profited from knowing what plans were afoot. When the revolt came, the loyal forces 'killed a great number ... when they were thus revealed' (6.4). Still, writing out a message and smuggling it to a confederate could be safer than entrusting it orally to a messenger, who could be bribed or tortured into talking if apprehended. Because of the possibility of such discovery, special care was needed over secret communications, and Herodotus found several instances of such security precautions.

"These stories present the historian at his anecdotal best, and we may well doubt whether any of them actually happened. Their very dramatic content, however, highlights the problem Socrates complained of; namely, writing drifting 'all over the place' and getting into the wrong hands. In one case, a Mede named Harpagus plotted with Cyrus to overthrow the King and install the young man in his place. 'Because the roads were guarded,' a secret message had to be smuggled through by some 'contrivance.' Harpagus took a hare and split open its belly, leaving the fur intact. Next, he inserted "a paper on which he wrote what he wanted," stitched the animal back together, and entrusted it to a servant, disguised as an innocuous huntsman. The servant made it past the guards along the road and delivered the message to its intended recipient (1.123; the text of the message itself is at 1.124)" (O'Toole, "Herodotus and the Written Record," Archivaria 33 [1991-92] 153-54).

Whatever Herodotus's ideas regarding the written record, his Histories survived because he wrote them down, and because they were re-copied. According to Roger Pearse, tertullian.org, 18 papyrus fragments of Herdotus survived, all fragments of a page, with little overlap. Most of these fragments date from the first or second centuries CE. Pearse cites nine medieval manuscript exemplars. The earliest, Laurentian 70, 3, known as Codex A, dates from the 10th century C.E. This was carefully written by two scribes in succession. The text contains marginal summaries and the remains of scholia, copied from its exemplar, as well as much later marginal notes, especially in book 1.

Pearse provides the following general comments on the surviving sources for Herodotus: "The manuscripts and papyri do not give us information on all the forms of the text of Herodotus that were known in antiquity. This we can see from the quotations of the text in other ancient authors. . . . Both the manuscripts and papyri appear to derive from a common ancient edition which was widely circulated in the early centuries AD. Who made this is unknown. . . ."

(This entry was last revised on 04-24-2014.)

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The Law Code of Gortyn, Crete: The Longest Extant Ancient Greek Stone Inscription in Greece Circa 440 BCE

Written in the Dorian dialect, the Law Code of Gortyn was the codification of the civil law of the ancient Greek city-state of Gortyn in southern Crete. It is a type of stone nscription called boustrophedron, in which alternate lines must be read in opposite directions rather than from left to right, or right to left as in Arabic. It derives from βους, "ox" + στρεφειν, "to turn" (cf. the etymology of strophe), because the hand of the writer goes back and forth, so that the resulting inscription resembles the path of an ox that draws a plow across a field and turns at the end of each row to return in the opposite direction.

Though only a major portion of the code survived, the twelve columns that remain are 30 feet in length and 5 feet in height and contain some 600 lines of text. The writing is uniform and is thought to have been carved by a single writer or sculptor. From the surviving code much concerning the civil law of Gortyn is known. Except for the inscription of Digoenes of Oenoanda in Lycia (now southwest Turkey) the Law Code of Gortyn is the longest extant Greek stone inscription.

Vasilakis, The Great Inscription of the Law Code of Gortyn (2007).

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Socrates on the Invention of Writing and the Relationship of Writing to Memory Circa 370 BCE

In the Phaedrus, written circa 370 BCE, Plato recorded Socrates's discussion of the Egyptian myth of the creation of writing. In the process Socrates faulted writing for weakening the necessity and power of memory, and for allowing the pretense of understanding, rather than true understanding.

From Plato's dialogue Phaedrus 14, 274c-275b:

Socrates: [274c] I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. He it was who [274d] invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters. 

Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus, who lived in the great city of the upper region, which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. But Thamus asked what use there was in each, and as Theuth enumerated their uses, expressed praise or blame, according as he approved [274e] or disapproved.  

"The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, [274e] “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; [275a] and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess.  

"For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem [275b] to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise." 

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The Earliest Example of Shorthand Writing Circa 350 BCE

The Acropolis stone.

The earliest known example of a shorthand writing system is the Acropolis stone (Akropolisstein) discovered in the Athenian Acropolis in 1884, and preserved in the British Museum (Brit. Mus. Add. Ms. 33270).  The marble slab shows a writing system using primarily based on vowels, using certain modifications to indicate consonants.

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The Lead Tablet Archives of the Athenian Cavalry Circa 350 BCE – 250 BCE

While information has survived concerning ancient Greek library and archive buildings from excavations of ruins, most information concerning library and archive holdings, and library and archive operation, is based on third party accounts, or is fragmentary or speculative. Dramatic exceptions to this overall lack of surviving archives from ancient Greece are the Archives of the Athenian Cavalry from the fourth and and third centuries BCE preserved on lead tablets. An Archive of the Athenian Cavalry was excavated in 1965 from a water well within the courtyard of the Dipylon, the double-gate leading into the city of Athens from the north. It included 574 lead tablets from the third century BCE. Six years later, in 1971, another hundred or so lead tablets from the fourth and third centuries BCE were excavated from a well at the edge of the excavated section of the Agora in Athens.

Historian of ancient archives Ernest Posner characterized these finds as

"by far the largest name file of ancient times. Tightly rolled or folded up, they contain the following information: the name in the genitive of the owner of a horse; the horse's color and brand, if any; and its value stated in drachmas, with 1,200 drachmas as the highest valuation given. Normally, only the name of the owner appears on the outside; the other data is relegated to the interior of the tablet and could not be read unless the tablet was unrolled or unfolded. A number of tablets are palimpsests; that is, the original entries were erased and replaced by new data"  (Posner, "The Athenian Cavalry Archives of the Fourth and Third Centures B.C.", The American Archivist (1974) 579-82).

The wide range of pottery as well as lead tablets excavated from the Dipylon were described by Karin Braun in "Der Dipylon-Brunne B¹ Die Funde," Mitteilungen des Deutschen archäologischen Instituts Athenische Abteilung, Band 85 (1970) 129-269, plates 53-93. Plates 83-93 illustrate lead tablets unfolded to show the writing and tablets rolled up.

From the extensive information available, John H. Kroll, author of the primary paper on the 1971 excavation, developed a theory of the purposes and operation of the Athenian Cavalry Archives, of which I quote a portion:

"The continual turnover of the horses explains, I think, why the records of the horses' values were kept as they were-individually on lead tablets. Official annual records at Athens were normally kept in list form on papyrus or whitened boards. But since a cavalryman was likely to have changed his horse at any time in the course of a year, a more flexible system of records was called for-the equivalent of the modern card-file system-whereby the record of a given horse could be pulled out and replaced if the horse itself was replaced. For such individual records, lead had obvious advantages over paper or wood, and, becatuse it was cheap and could be erased and re-used repeatedly, it would have been less costly in the long run. The re-use of the tablets, incidently, must surely be a factor in the low survival rate of tablets in most series and the loss of other entire series. There is one other respect in which the tablets stand apart from most annual records. I assume that they were rolled or folded simply to facilitate storage and not because the evaluations they contain were to be kept secret. But the fact that they were folded or rolled up, many of them as tightly as they could be, indicates that no one expected them to be referred to on a regular basis. Indeed, since all of the unbroken tablets were recovered from the Kerameikos and Agora wells in their original folded or rolled state, it appears doubtful that any of the extant tablets had ever been consulted. This of course does not mean that the evaluations were never consulted, merely that the records were made up annually and filed away to be consulted only in rare, though anticipated, cases. If the occasion did not arise in the course of the year, they expired, were replaced with the next year's evaluations, and were put aside, eventually to be erased and re-used" (Kroll, "An Archive of the Athenian Cavalry," Hesperia XLVI [1977] No. 2, 94-95). Kroll's extensive article occupies pp. 83-140 of the journal issue and includes numerous drawings and photographs.

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Writing on Lead Tablets in Antiquity Circa 350 BCE – 250 BCE

"Lead seems to have been employed for writing in antiquity more commonly than is usually recognized. Because of its baseness and assumed affinities with the underworld, it was the standard medium for curse tablets (A. Audollent, Defixionum Tabellae, Paris 1904, pp. xlviii-xlix). Otherwise its cheapness, permanence, and ease of inscribing made it suitable for private papers (e. g., Plutarch, De mul. virt. 254 D; Frontinus, Strategemata III, 3. 7= Dio, XLVI. 36. 4; SIG3, 1259, 1260; G. R. Davidson and D. B. Thompson, Hesperia, Suppl. VII, Small Objects from the Pnyx: I, Cambridge, Mass. 1943, pp. 10-11, no. 17; Zeitschrift fir Papyrologie und Epigraphik 17, 1975, pp. 157-162), for the writing out of queries to the oracle at Dodona (H. W. Parke, The Oracles of Zeus, Oxford 1967, pp. 100-102, 126, note 18, 259-273), and for public documents, such as the 6th century B.C. records of loans from a temple archive at Corcyra (BSA 66, 1971, pp. 79-93). Pausanias (IX. 31. 4) saw a text of Hesiod on lead on Mt. Helikon. Unspecified public lead documents are mentioned by Pliny, Nat. Hist. XIII. 68-69, and " lead paper " (plumbea charta) by Suetonius, Nero. 20. H. A. Thompson has called my attention to a series of lead strips of the 8th century B.C. from central Anatolia inscribed with various official records and published by T. Ozgiic in Kultepe and its Vicinity in the Iron Age, Ankara 1971, pp. 111-116; reference is there made to similar lead plaques found at Assur (Bibliotheca Orientalis 8, 1951, pp. 126-133). An exhaustive account of Greek inscriptions on lead has been compiled by Anne P. Miller in her University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Ph. D. dissertation, "Studies in Early Sicilian Epigraphy: An Opisthographic Lead Tablet," 1973 (Xerox University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, no. 73-26, 213), to which I owe several of the above references. A new private letter on lead, of the early 4th century B.C., was found in the same well as the present cavalry tablets. . . ." (Kroll, "An Archive of the Athenian Cavalry," Hesperia XLVI (1977) No. 2, 83-140, footnote 29).

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Probably the Earliest Surviving Papyrus of a Greek Text Circa 350 BCE

A papyrus fragment of The Persae by the Greek musician and dithyrambic poet, Timotheus (Timotheos) of Miletus, discovered in Abusir, Egypt, is probably the earliest surviving papyrus of a Greek text found in Egypt. It is preserved in the Staatliches Museum, Berlin (P. Berol. 9875).

The text was first edited and published by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff as Timotheos, Die Perser, aus einem Papyrus von Abusir im Aufrage der deutschen Orientgesellschaft (1903).

Morison, Politics and Script. . . . Barker ed. (1972) 11, pl. 8 describes the Greek writing on the papyrus as "Formal book-script; square; monoline; unserifed."

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The Earliest Datable Appearance of the Serif in Stone Inscriptions 334 BCE – 330 BCE

The earliest datable stone inscription incorporating consistent thickening towards the ends of perpendiculars and horizontals in the lettering— later called serifs— is the Dedication of the Temple of Athena Polias in Priene, Asia Minor, by Alexander the Great (British Museum GR 1870.3-20.88 (Inscription 399 and 400).

"The distinctive feature of this consists of consistent thickening towards the ends of perpendiculars and horizontals. This thickening is often very slight in dimension but obviously always deliberate—despite the evidence in this example that the sculptor, though a first-class workman, was hurried in his execution. His deliberation is more clearly visible in a rubbing of certain characters which display this distinction (it may be rash to describe it as an innovation) to as clear a degree as possible. His speed is suggested in the lack of precision. In many respects the lettering has the appearance of a free hand rather than a geometrically regulated inscription" (Morison, Politics and Script. . . . Nicolas Barker ed. [1972] 7-8, pls. 2-3).

"In 336 BC Alexander the Great embarked on a programme of territorial expansion, which would eventually extend the boundaries of the Greek world to Egypt in the south and to India in the East. In 334 BC Alexander crossed the Hellespont, the narrow strait separating Europe and Asia, and went first to Troy. There he dedicated his armour to Athena and laid a wreath at the tomb of Achilles, the legendary hero and champion of the Greeks in the Trojan War. This act prefigured Alexander's role as a new Achilles liberating the Greek cities of Asia Minor from Asiatic rule.  

"That same summer of 334 BC, a successful engagement with the Persian army at the river Granicus, east of Troy, opened the gates of Asia Minor, and Alexander proceeded to tour the Greek cities of the west coast, expelling their Persian garrisons.  

"On reaching Priene, he made a further dedication to Athena. There the townspeople were laying out their new city and building a temple to its patron goddess. Alexander offered funds to complete the temple, and the inscription on this wall block, cut into a block of marble, records his gift. The inscription was found in the nineteenth century by the architect-archaeologist Richard Pullan leading an expedition on behalf of the Society of Dilettanti. It reads: 'King Alexander dedicated the Temple to Athena Polias' (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/gr/d/dedication_by_alexander.aspx, accessed 08-18-2014).

Stan Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance (2009) A1 b (p. 14).

(This entry was last revised on 08-18-2014.)


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The Earliest Surviving Letter Written in Greek Circa 325 BCE

The Greek historian Philochorus of Athens (Φιλόχορος) is credited with the invention of the "typically scientific letter and the polemical pamphlet." A letter by Philochorus written on lead plates, μολυβδινη επιστολη, survived from the early fourth century CE and was preserved in the Kgl. Museen, Berlin. 

Adolf Wilhelm, "Der älteste grieschische Brief," Jahreshefte des oesterreichen Archäologischen Institutes in Wien, 7 (1904) 94-105 (with illustrations of the original letter written on lead).

Jenö Platthy, Sources on the Earliest Greek Libraries with the Testimonia (1968) 29. 

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300 BCE – 30 CE

The Dead Sea Scrolls 300 BCE – 68 CE

A column of the Copper Scroll found in Cave Three.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in eleven caves near Khirbet Qumran, on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea have been dated between 300 BCE and 68 CE, on the basis of historical, paleographic, and linguistic evidence, as well as carbon-14 dating. Because they date from the late Second Temple Period, when Jesus of Nazareth lived, the Dead Sea Scrolls are older than any other surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures, except for the Nash Papyrus, by almost one thousand years. They are preserved in The Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

“Most of the scrolls were written in Hebrew, with a smaller number in Aramaic or Greek. Most of them were written on parchment, with the exception of a few written on papyrus. The vast majority of the scrolls survived as fragments—only a handful were found intact. Nevertheless, scholars have managed to reconstruct from these fragments approximately 850 different manuscripts of various lengths.

"The manuscripts fall into three major categories: biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian. The biblical manuscripts comprise some two hundred copies of books of the Hebrew Bible, representing the earliest evidence for the biblical text in the world. Among the apocryphal manuscripts (works that were not included in the Jewish biblical canon) are works that had previously been known only in translation, or that had not been known at all. The sectarian manuscripts reflect a wide variety of literary genres: biblical commentary, religious-legal writings, liturgical texts, and apocalyptic compositions. Most scholars believe that the scrolls formed the library of the sect (the Essenes?) that lived at Qumran. However it appears that the members of this sect wrote only part of the scrolls themselves, the remainder having been composed or copied elsewhere” (Shrine of the Book. Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls, accessed 12-24-2009).

In September 2011 The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls website, a partnership between the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and Google, made five of the scrolls searchable online as part of a project to provide searchable online facsimiles of all the scrolls.

In December 2012 the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library was launched by the Israel Antiquities Authority in partnership with Google Israel, making high resolution images of the scrolls freely available. The site was launched 11 years after the completion of the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, initiated and sponsored by the IAA, and 65 years after the first scrolls were unearthed in the Caves of Qumran.

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The Earliest Known Examples of Maya Script Circa 300 BCE

A vertical, columnar stone inscription roughly six inches long. Image: Boris Beltrán/Science. (View Larger)

The earliest stone inscription which is identifiably in Maya script, (or Maya glyphs or Maya hieroglyphs) was found in in 2005 the pre-Columbian Maya archaeological site in San Bartolo in the Department of Petén in northern Guatemala, northeast of Tikal and roughly fifty miles from the nearest settlement. This vertical column of ten glyphic words roughly six inches long, dating from circa 300 BCE, "may be related to a nearby painted image of the maize god" (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/10/science/10maya.html?_r=1, accessed 03-23-2010). In 2010 this inscription had not been deciphered.

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The Earliest Surviving Example of a Greek Chronological Table Circa 298 BCE – 264 BCE

The Oxford fragment of the Parian Marble. (View Larger)

The earliest surviving example of a Greek chronological table, the Parian Marble (Marmor Parium) or Parian Chronicle, covers the years from 1581 BCE to 299/8 BCE, inscribed on a marble stele, of which two fragments are known. The first fragment was found on the island of Páros in two sections, and sold in Smyrna in the early 17th century to an agent for Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel. This inscription (ll. 1-45) was deciphered by the antiquarian John Selden and published among the Arundel Marbles, in Marmora Arundelliana (London, 1628-9) nos. 1-21, 59-119. The upper part of the first fragment (A) was later lost and is known only from the transcription published by Selden. The surviving portion of A (ll. 46-93) is preserved in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. A third fragment of Marmor Parium (B)comprising the base of the stele and containing the end of the text (ll. 101-133) with entries from 356-299/98 BCE, was found on Páros in 1897, and is preserved in a museum on that island.

The compiler of the chronology is unknown, but the date of composition can be fixed at 264/3 BCE because of the mention of the name of the Athenian archon Diognetus (l.3) who served during those years. The chronology  includes a list of events from the reign of the mythical king Cecrops to the archonship of Euctemon, with its main focus on Athenian history. Events are arranged in paragraphs which include a short description of the event, the name of the Athenian king or archon, and the number of years elapsing from 264/3 BC expressed in Attic or acrophonic numerals

"It combines dates for events we would consider mythic, such as the Flood of Deucalion (equivalent to 1528/27 BC) with dates we would categorize as historic. For the Greeks, the events of their distant past, such as the Trojan War (dated to 1218 in the Parian inscription) and the Voyage of the Argonauts were historic: their myths were understood as legends to the Greeks. In fact the Parian inscriptions spend more detail on the Heroic Age than on certifiably historic events closer to the date the stele was inscribed and erected, apparently in 264/263 BC. 'The Parian Marble uses chronological specificity as a guarantee of truth,' Peter Green observed in the introduction to his annotated translation of the Argonautica of Apollonios Rhodios: 'the mythic past was rooted in historical time, its legends treated as fact, its heroic protagonists seen as links between the 'age of origins' and the mortal, everyday world that succeeded it' "(Wikipedia article on Parian Chronicle, accessed 11-22-2010).

In December 2014 the Department of Digital Humanities at the University of Leipzig was in the process of producing a Digital Marmor Parium at this link.

(This entry was last revised on 12-21-2014.)

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Philology Probably Begins at the Royal Library of Alexandria Circa 280 BCE

Fragments of the Odyssey, most likely copied in Alexandria.

Commentaries on the Iliad and the Odyssey written during the Hellenistic period at Alexandria began exploring the textual inconsistencies of the poems which occurred as the result of different scribes writing down differing versions of poems passed down through the oral tradition. Examples of these variant readings have survived in Bodleian Library papyrus (MS. Gr. class. b.3 [P]). The process of comparing different manuscript texts— such as would have been preserved at the Alexandrian Library— to arrive at what might be the “canonical” text, was the beginning of philology

The first critical edition of Homer was made by Zenodotus of Ephesus, first superintendant of the Library of Alexandria, who lived during the reigns of the first two Ptolemies, and was at the height of his reputation about 280 BCE. His colleagues in librarianship were Alexander of Aetolia and Lycophron of Chalcis, to whom were allotted the tragic and comic writers respectively, Homer and other epic poets being assigned to Zenodotus.

"Having collated the different manuscripts in the library, he expunged or obelized doubtful verses, transposed or altered lines, and introduced new readings. It is probable that he was responsible for the division of the Homeric poems into twenty-four books each (using capital Greek letters for the Iliad, and lower-case for the Odyssey), and possibly was the author of the calculation of the days of the Iliad in the Tabula Iliaca" (Wikipedia article on Zenodotus, accessed 11-26-2008).

The most famous Greek manuscript of the IliadVenetus A (Marcianus Graecus Z. 454 [=822]), a tenth century codex preserved at the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, contains several layers of annotations, glosses, and commentaries known as the "A scholia." These are thought to preserve editorial comments made by scholars at the Royal Library of Alexandria, as well as scholia accumulated by late antique annotators and philologists until the manuscript was written at Constantinople during the Macedonian Renaissance.

(This entry was last revised on 12-20-2014.)

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Writing on Bamboo and Silk Circa 250 BCE

An example of Lishu, or Clerkly Script, developed by Chinese Bureaucrats to be written with a brush.

In China until the end of the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty (256 BCE), through China’s classical period, writing was done with a bamboo pen, with ink of soot, or lampblack upon slips of bamboo or wood, with wood being used mainly for short messages and bamboo for longer messages and for books.

“Bamboo is cut into strips about 9 inches long and wide enough for a single column of characters. The wood was sometimes in the same form, sometimes wider. The bamboo strips, being stronger, could be perforated at one end and strung together, either with silken cords or with leather thongs, to form books. . .   

“The invention of the writing brush of hair, attributed to the general Meng T’ien [Meng Tian] in the third century B.C., worked a transformation in writing materials. This transformation is indicated by two changes in the language. The word for chapter used after this time means ’roll’; the word for writing materials becomes ’bamboo and silk’ instead of ’bamboo and wood.’ There is evidence that the silk used for writing during the early part of the Han dynasty consisted of actual silk fabric. Letters on silk, dating possibly from Han times, have been found together with paper in a watchtower of a spur of the Great Wall.

“But as the dynastic records of the time state, ’silk was too expensive and bamboo too heavy.’. . .The emperor Chin’in Shih Huang [Qui Shi Huang]  set himself the task of going over daily a hundred and twenty pounds of state documents. Clearly a new writing material was needed.

“The first step was probably a sort of paper or near-paper made of raw silk. This is indicated by the character for paper, which has the silk radical showing material, and by the defintion of that character in the Shuo wen, [Shuowen Jiezi] a dictionary that was finished about the year A.D. 100” (Carter, The Invention of Printing in China and its Spread Westward, 2nd ed.  [1955] 3-4).

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The Only Extant Ancient Linen Book and the Longest Etruscan Text Circa 250 BCE

Preserved when it was used for mummy wrappings in Ptolemaic Egypt, the Liber Lenteus Zagrabensis (Linen Book of Zagreb), remains the longest extant Etruscan text and the only extant early book written on linen. Though the complete text remains untranslated because of lack of understanding of the Etruscan language, it is thought to be a ritual calendar. Certain local gods mentioned within the text allow its place of production to be narrowed to a small area in southeast Tuscany near Lake Trasimeno where four major Etruscan cities were located: modern day ArezzoPerugiaChiusi and Cortona.

The manuscript was purchased in Alexandria, Egypt in 1848, and preserved in Zagreb, Croatia since 1867; however it was not recognized as an Etruscan text until 1891.

"The book is laid out in twelve columns from right to left, each one representing a "page". Much of the first three columns are missing, and it is not known where the book begins. Closer to the end of the book the text is almost complete (there is a strip missing that runs the entire length of the book). By the end of the last page the cloth is blank and the selvage is intact, showing the definite end of the book.

"There are 230 lines of text, with 1200 legible words. Black ink has been used for the main text, and red ink for lines and diacritics.

"In use it would have been folded so that one page sat atop another like a codex, rather than being wound along like a scroll. Julius Caesar is said to have folded scrolls in similar accordion fashion while on campaigns" (Wikipedia article on Liber Linteus, accessed 10-17-2014).

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The Rosetta Stone: Key to the Decipherment of Egyptian Hieroglyphs 196 BCE – 1822

Only July 15, 1799 French Capitaine Pierre-François Bouchard, with Napoleon in Egypt, discovered a dark stone 112.3 cm tall, 75.7 wide and 28.4 thick in the ruins of Fort St. Julien near the coastal city of Rosetta (Arabic: رشيد‎ Rašīd, French: Rosette), 65 kilometers east of Alexandria. This stone, which had been used in the construction of a fortress by the fifteenth century Mamluk ruler of Egypt, Al-Ashraf Sayf ad-Din Qa'it Bay (Sultan Qaitbay), was later understood to be a fragment of an ancient stela (stele)— a stone on which one of a series of Ptolemaic decrees issued over the reign of the Hellenistic Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled Egypt from 305 BCE to 30 BCE, were inscribed and put up in major temple complexes in Egypt. The decree, known as the third Memphis decree, passed by a council of priests from the Ptolemaic period in 196 BCE, affirmed the royal cult of the 13-year-old Ptolemy V as a living god on the first anniversary of his coronation. The decree was written in Egyptian hieroglyphs (the language of the priests, suitable for a priestly decree), in Egyptian Demotic script (the native script used for daily purposes), and in classical Greek (the language of the Hellenistic administration).

The stele found at Rosetta could not have originally been placed there because the land on which it was found did not exist at the time of its carving, but was the result of later sedimentation. Another decree, also written in the same languages, known as the Canopus Decree, was later discovered at Tanis in 1866 by Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius. A second Canopus Decree was found in 1881. A third decree in the same languages, known as the Decree of Memphis (Ptolemy IV) is known in two versions: the Raphia Decree, found 1902 at the site of ancient Memphis, and the Pithom Stele, No. II, found 1923, which has hieroglyphs on the front, 42 lines in Demotic on the back, providing an almos complete translation, and Greek on the side.   

Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt had been established by the first Ptolemy, known as Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander's generals. Ignorant of the Egyptian language, the Ptolemies required their officials to speak Greek and made Greek the language of their administration, a requirement that remained in effect throughout their dynasty, which lasted for a thousand years. During their rule the Ptolemies made their capital city Alexandria the most advanced cultural center in the Greek-speaking world, for centuries second only to Rome. Among their most famous projects were the Royal Library of Alexandria and the Pharos Lighthouse, or Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

Because of the Ptolemaic dynasty's replacement of hieroglyphics by Greek among the educated non-priestly class educated Egyptians outside of the priesthood lost the ability to read their ancient pictographic language. Later, on February 27, 380, emperors Theodosius IGratian, and Valentinian II made Nicene Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire by the Edict of Thessalonica, also known as Cunctos populos, stating that all their subjects should profess the faith of the bishops of Rome and Alexandria. In 392 CE Theodosius issued a decisive edict closing Egyptian temples. As a result, the latest known inscription written in Egyptian hieroglyphs is dated August 23, 394 CE.

During the centuries of Muslim rule one scholar in Egypt during the ninth to tenth centuries, Ahmad bin Abu Bakr ibn Washshiyah, wrote a treatise on scripts in which he not only interpreted hieroglyphs as pictorial images, but, by relating them to the Coptic language used by Coptic priests during his time, also provided an alphabet in which hieroglyphs represented single letters, though only occasionally correctly. This text, which was read in manuscript by seventeenth-century polymath Athanasius Kircher, was later translated into English by Joseph Hammer, Secretary of the Imperial Legation at Constantinople, and published in print in 1806 as Ancient Alphabets and Hieroglyphic Characters Explained, with an Account of the Egyptian Priests. Following Kircher's early but incorrect attempts to understand hieroglyphs, by the mid-18th century deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic language became one of the most challenging problems for European archeologists and linguists. Probably in 1761 Abbé Jean-Jacques Barthélemy was the first to suggest that the cartouches or oval-shaped framed sections of hieroglyphic inscriptions contained the names of gods and kings.

The Rosetta Stone was forfeited to the English in 1801 under the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria. Following its arrival in England in 1801, the Rosetta stone was placed in The Society of Antiquaries, where casts were made and sent to the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Dublin and to scholars in France for incorporation in the Description de l'Égypt that was eventually published between 1809 and 1828. In June, 1802 the stone was placed in the British Museum, where it remains. The Society of Antiquaries issued full-size reproductions of the stone between 1802 and 1803. Once the texts were available to scholars the three approximately parallel texts on the Rosetta Stone became key pieces of evidence in the research on hieroglyphics by Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, Johan David Åkerblad and Thomas Young, culminating in Jean-François Champollion's translation of the hieroglyphic text on the stone in 1822.

The first scholarly publication on the Rosetta Stone was de Sacy's, pamphlet: Lettre au Citoyen Chaptal . . . au sujet de l'inscription Égyptienne du monument trouvé à Rosette (Paris, 1802). In this brief work illustrated with one transcription of a portion of the stone, the orientalist and linguist Sacy, a teacher of Champollion, made some progress in identifying proper names in the demotic inscription. Within the same year another student of Sacy, the Swedish diplomat and orientalist Johan David Åkerblad published another "lettre" which described how he had managed to identify all proper names in the demotic text in just two months.  

"He could also read words like "Greek", "temple" and "Egyptian" and found out the correct sound value from 14 of the 29 signs, but he wrongly believed the demotic hieroglyphs to be entirely alphabetic. One of his strategies of comparing the demotic to Coptic later became a key in Champollion's eventual decipherment of the hieroglyphic script and the Ancient Egyptian language" (Wikipedia article on Johan David Akerblad, accessed 12-27-2012).

"At some period after its arrival in London, the inscriptions on the stone were coloured in white chalk to make them more legible, and the remaining surface was covered with a layer of carnauba wax designed to protect the Rosetta Stone from visitors' fingers. This gave a dark colour to the stone that led to its mistaken identification as black basalt. These additions were removed when the stone was cleaned in 1999, revealing the original dark grey tint of the rock, the sparkle of its crystalline structure, and a pink vein running across the top left corner. Comparisons with the Klemm collection of Egyptian rock samples showed a close resemblance to rock from a small granodiorite quarry at Gebel Tingar on the west bank of the Nile, west of Elephantine in the region of Aswan; the pink vein is typical of granodiorite from this region. . . . (Wikipedia article on Rosetta Stone, accessed 06-10-2011).

♦ When I revised this database entry in October 2012 the Rosetta Stone was the most widely viewed object in the British Museum. Reflective of this intense interest, the British Museum shop then offered a remarkably wide range of products with the Rosetta Stone motif, ranging from facsimiles of the stone in various sizes to umbrellas, coffee mugs, mousepads, neckties, and iPhone cases. In their British Museum Objects in Focus series of booklets they also issued a very useful 64-page compact reference: The Rosetta Stone by Richard Parkinson (2005). Parkinson was the author of the more definitive work entitled Cracking Codes. The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment, with Contributions by W[hitfield] Diffie, M. Fischer, and R.S. Simpson also published by the British Museum in 1999.

(This entry was last revised on August 12, 2014.)

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The Mawangui Silk Texts Circa 175 BCE

A Taoist text preserved on silk and discovered in Mawangui in 1973.

The Mawangdui Silk Texts (Chinese: 馬王堆帛書; pinyin: Mǎwángduī Bóshū), texts of Chinese philosophical and medical works written on silk, were found buried in Tomb no. 3 at Mawangdui, in the city of Changsha, Hunan, China in 1973. 

"They include the earliest attested manuscripts of existing texts such as the I Ching, two copies of the Tao Te Ching, one similar copy of Strategies of the Warring States and a similar school of works of Gan De and Shi Shen. Scholars arranged them into silk books of 28 kinds. Together they count to about 120,000 words covering military strategy, mathematics, cartography and the six classical arts of ritual, music, archery, horsemanship, writing and arithmetic" (Wikipedia article on Mawangdui Silk Texts, accessed 01-31-2010).

Most of the Mawangdui Silk Texts are preserved in the Hunan Provincial Museum.

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The Earliest Bookbindings Circa 100 BCE

The craft of bookbinding originated in India. Religious sutra, meaning "a rope or thread that holds things together," were copied onto palm leaves cut in two, lengthwise, with a metal stylus. The leaf was then dried and rubbed with ink, which formed a stain in the stylus tracings in the leaf. The finished leaves were numbered, and two long twines were threaded through each end through wooden boards. When closed, the excess twine was wrapped around the boards to protect the leaves of the book. Buddhist monks took the idea of bookbinding through what we call Persia, Afghanistan, and Iran, to China in the first century BCE.

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Possibly the Earliest System of Shorthand 63 BCE

Vindolanda Tablet 122 with Latin shorthand, possibly notae Tironianae, c.90-130 CE. (View Larger)

Plutarch records that in 63 BCE the system of shorthand known as Tironian notes was used to record Cato the Younger's denunciation against Catiline:

"This only of all Cato's speeches, it is said, was preserved; for Cicero, the consul, had disposed in various parts of the senate-house, several of the most expert and rapid writers, whom he had taught to make figures comprising numerous words in a few short strokes; as up to that time they had not used those we call shorthand writers, who then, as it is said, established the first example of the art."

"Tironian notes (notae Tironianae) is a system of shorthand said to have been invented by Cicero's scribe Marcus Tullius Tiro. Tiro's system consisted of about 4,000 signs, somewhat extended in classical times to 5,000 signs. In the Medieval period, Tironian notes were taught in monasteries and the system was extended to about 13,000 signs. The use of Tironian notes declined after A.D. 1100 but some use can still be seen through the 17th century" (Wikipedia article on Tironian notes, accessed 04-20-2009).

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The Oldest Surviving Manuscript of Latin Poetry Circa 50 BCE – 25 CE

The Roman poet, orator and politician Gaius Cornellus Gallus, prefect of Egypt from 30 to 26 BCE, enjoyed a high reputation among his contemporaries as a man of intellect, and was considered by the poet Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) to be the first of the elegiac poets of Rome. He is known to have written four books of elegies chiefly on his mistress Lycoris (a poetic name for Cytheris), a notorious actress, and he is thought to have been an inspiration for the Latin elegiac poet Sextus Propertius, and the Latin poet Albius Tibullus as well as Ovid. Yet his literary reputation is entirely based on heresay since until the late 20th century only one pentameter of his had survived.

In 1978 excavations at Qasr Ibrim yielded a papyrus fragment containing nine lines by Gallus. Qasr Ibrim was originally a major city perched on a cliff above the Nile, but the flooding of Lake Nasser after the construction of the Aswan High Dam transformed it into an island, which remains a major site for archaeological investigations. The Gallus papyrus is designated PQasrIbrîm inv. 78-3-11/ (L1/2). It consists of five fragments of papyrus which join to make a single piece 19.4 cm wide by 16.3 cm high. The papyrus was published with very extensive analysis by R. D. Anderson, P. J. Parsons and R.G.M. Nisbet in "Elegiacs by Gallus from Qasr Ibrîm," Journal of Roman Studies 69 (1979) 125-55, including color reproductions of portions of the papyrus.

Among some of their observations:

"At all events, we have here the remains of a Roman book, very probably of the reign of Augustus, quite possibly of the lifetime of Gallus himself. It is, with PHerc 817 (Carmen de bello Aegypticaco), by far our oldest MS of Latin poetry." (p. 128) [PHerc 817 is not later than 79 CE.]

"The text is written in a small formal upright bilinear bookhand. This is among the earliest examples (very possibly is the earliest example) of the style, which in many features anticipates the 'canonized' (that is, ossified) Rustic Capital of iv A. D. and after.

"The book can be dated from its archaeological context, more precisely (c.50-20 B.C.) or less precisely (c.50 B.C.- A.D. 25). It therefore provides one of the few fixed points in the early history of Latin literary scripts." (P. 135)

"Given the rarity of early Latin books, it is not easy to assess this one. The script is small and neat and deftly executed, less gawky than PHerc 817, less ostentatiously stylish than in PHer 1475; despite wide inconsistences of ornament, letter-shape and even ductus (which indeed may have been the norm before canonization set in), an elegant calligraphic performance. This, with wide margins, certainly suggests a good professional copy. On the other hand, the apex is not written, in contrast to some other early MSS, and a clear mistake is not corrected, although the employment of a corrector was—for scholars at least—an essential part of proper book production. This mixture of features may be a matter of date, of quality or of both. We cannot even tell whether the book was imported from Italy, or copied (under Gallus' prefecture) in Egypt." (p. 138).

"Scholars used to believe, in the absence of any surviving poetry by Gallus and on the basis of his high reputation among his contemporaries, that his poetical gifts were little short of those of Virgil. A nineteenth-century British classicist famously asked, 'What would we not barter of all the epics of empire for ten lines of Gallus?' The discoveries at Qasr Ibrim have now given us nine lines of Gallus. Coincidentally, one of them mentions Lycoris, ('saddened, Lycoris, by your wanton behaviour'), confirming their authorship. Possibly atypical, these surviving lines are of disappointing quality. They are written in a Latin more Lucretian and Catullan than Virgilian, and a certain roughness in the composition recalls Quintilian's judgment that Gallus's style was durior (rather harsh). Their sentiments are conventional, and show little trace of originality" (Wikipedia article on Cornelius Gallus, accessed 03-01-2014). 

According to Anderson, Parsons and Nisbet, PQasrIbrîm in. 78-3-11/1 (L1/2) (case 7, item 84) is preserved in the Cairo Museum.

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Humorous Inscriptions on Lead Sling-Bolts (Sling Bullets; Slingshot) Reflect a Roman War of Words 41 BCE

Sling-bolts, or bullets, engraved with a winged lightning-bolt on one side, and the words 'take that' on another. Circa fourth century BCE Athens. (View Larger)

Evidence of wide-ranging military literacy in the Roman Empire can be of a very ephemeral kind:

"In 41 BC during the civil war that followed the death of Julius Caesar, Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) trapped Lucius Antonius and Fulvia (the brother and the wife of Mark Antony) within the walls of the central Italian town of Perugia. A number of lead sling-bolts (roughly the size of hazelnuts), manufactured during the seige that followed, have been recovered in Perugia; they bear short inscriptions, which both sides carved into their moulds, so that the bolts [also called sling bullets or slingshot] could be used in a war of words, as well as to inflict death or injury. Some of these inscriptions are fairly tame, wishing victory to one or other side, or commenting on Lucius Antonius' receding hairline (which is also known from his coinage). Others are rather richer in flavour, like the one, fired from Octavian's side, which bluntly asks: Lucius Antonius the bald, and Fulvia, show us your arse [L. [uci] A[antoni] calve, Fulvia, culum pan[dite] ]. Whoever composed this refined piece of propaganda and had it cast into a sling-bolt certainly expected some of the soldery on the other side to be able to read" (Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization [2005] 157-58).

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Res gestae divi Augusti: The First Person Record of the Life and Accomplishments of the First Roman Emperor Circa 15 CE

After the death of Augustus in 14 CE copies of the Res gestae divi Augusti (The Deeds of the Divine Augustus), the first-person record of his life and accomplishments written by the first Roman emperor, were carved on stone on monuments or temples throughout the Roman Empire. According to the text it was written just before Augustus' death, but it was probably written years earlier and likely went through many revisions. Augustus left the text with his will, which instructed the Senate to set up the inscriptions. The original, which has not survived, was engraved upon a pair of bronze pillars and placed in front of Augustus' mausoleum in the Campus Martius in Rome. The most complete surviving copy, written in Latin with a Greek translation, was preserved on a temple to Augustus in Ancyra  (now AnkaraTurkey). Others were been found at Apollonia and Antioch, both in Pisidia.

"The text consists of a short introduction, 35 body paragraphs, and a posthumous addendum. These paragraphs are conventionally grouped in four sections, political career, public benefactions, military accomplishments and a political statement. . . .

"By its very nature the Res Gestae is propaganda for the principate that Augustus instituted. It tends to gloss over the events between the assassination of Augustus' adoptive father Julius Caesar and the victory at Actium when his foothold on power was finally undisputed. Augustus' enemies are never mentioned by name. Caesar's murderers Brutus and Cassius are not referred to by name, they are simply "those who killed my father." The Battle of Philippi is mentioned only in passing and not by name. Mark Antony and Sextus Pompeius, Augustus' opponents in the East, remain equally anonymous; the former is "he with whom I fought the war," while the latter is merely a "pirate." Likewise, the text fails to mention his imperium maius and his exceptional tribunicial powers. Often quoted is Augustus' official position on his government: "From that time (27 BC, the end of the civil war) I surpassed all others in influence, yet my official powers were no greater than those of my colleague in office." This is in keeping with a reign that promoted itself from the beginning as a "restoration" of the old republic, with a leader who was nothing more than "first among equals," but was virtually akin to absolute monarchy by divine right, backed by the swords of the legions.

"The Res Gestae was a unique public relations move for the first emperor of the Roman Empire, whose political career was in many ways experimental. If their frequent use as "history" by later historians (both ancient and modern) who characterized Augustus' rule according to categories he himself constructed in the Res Gestae is any indication, it is a rather successful piece of propaganda. On the other hand, it would be absurd to overlook the usefulness to historians of what is essentially a first-person account of his rule" (Wikipedia article on Res Gestae Divi Augusti, accessed 09-23-2014.)

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30 CE – 500 CE

The Oldest Surviving Substantial Collection of Buddhist Manuscripts: The Dead Sea Scrolls of Buddhism Circa 50 CE

In September 1994, the British Library Oriental and India Office Collections acquired a collection of twenty‐nine fragments of manuscripts written on birch bark rolls in the Gāndhārī language and the Kharoṣṭhī script. They were said to have been preserved inside a clay pot, also bearing an inscription in the same language, in which they had been buried in antiquity. However, before their acquisition by the British Library they had been removed from the pot and forced inside thirteen modern glass jars, during which they were damaged considerably. After their acquisition by the British Library the rolls underwent a thorough restoration process. Analysis of these birch bark rolls indicates that they date from about the first century CE, making them the oldest Buddhist manuscripts, as well as the oldest Indian manuscripts known. 

"The texts were written with a reed pen and black ink on scrolls consisting of sections of birch bark, which in most cases were glued together to form long strips. In general, the texts were written continuously over the recto and verso sides of the scroll, but in a few manuscripts only the recto is inscribed. All of the texts are incomplete and have suffered from varying degrees of loss and damage, in many cases severe. This is attributable in large part to the instability of old birch bark, which becomes extremely fragile and usually survives only in favorable conditions such as when it is placed in an airtight container. In all cases the upper parts of the scrolls have been completely lost, since this is the part that is most vulnerable to wear, being exposed on the outside when the scrolls are rolled up from the bottom. Although it is impossible to extrapolate any precise measurements from the original lengths of the complete scrolls, it appears that the largest and best-preserved specimens, such as fragment 15, whose surviving portion is about 115 centimeters long, might represent approximately half of the original scroll. The loss of the upper portions of the scrolls is particularly troublesome because it is at the top of the scrolls that we would expect to find titles and/or colophons of the texts, at least in the case of those written continuously on both sides. Due to these circumstances, such colophons are not found (but for one partial exception. . .) which renders the task of identifying the texts immeasurably more difficult" (Richard Salomon, Ancient Buddhist Texts from Gandhāra. The British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragments [1999] 22).

"The exact findspot of these manuscripts is unfortunately unknown. But in the past several manuscripts of the same type have been reported to have been found in or around Haḍḍa near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, although none of these have ever been published and most of them apparently are now lost. It is therefore likely that the new manuscripts came from the same region. This area closely adjoins the region known in ancient times as Gandhāra, the homeland of the Gāndhārī language and Kharoṣṭhī script, which were current from about the third century B.C. to the fourth century A.D." (http://www.ebmp.org/p_abt.php, accessed 01-19-2013).

"Although the British Library fragments are comparable to the Dead Sea scrolls and the Nag Hammadi manuscripts in that they give actual samples of the textual corpus of a much earlier phase of Buddhist tradition than had been previous available, they are unlikely to contain anything as radically unfamiliar as appeared in their Christian counterparts. The survey of the new fragments carried out to date, the results of which are summarized in the rest of this book, has revealed nothing that is startlingly as odds with early Buddhist doctrine as previously understood, nor is there much reason to expect that further analysis will turn up anything that will be. The importance of the new collection is on a different and perhaps less spectacular level, though this does not diminish its importance. These fragments give us an unprecedented direct glimpse into the contents of what appears to have ben a monastic collection or library of the Dharmaguptaka school in or around the first half of the first century A.D., and they are by far the earliest such sampling of a Buddhist textual corpus that has ever been found. It is likely, though not quite certain, that the British Library fragments are the oldest Buddhist fragments yet known, and in any case they are definitely the oldest coherent set of manuscript material" (Salomon, op. cit., 9-10).

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Probably the Earliest Surviving Image of the Crucifixion: A Graffito Circa 50 CE – 250 CE

The Alexamenos Grafitto. (View Larger)

The earliest surviving image of the Crucifixion appears to be an anti-Christian graffito discovered in 1857 carved in plaster on a wall near the Palatine Hill in Rome, now in the Palatine Antiquarium Museum. A Greek inscription, translated as "Alexamenos worshipping his God," is scratched on the graffito causing it to be known as the "Alexamenos Grafitto." The date of this graffito has been estimated as between 50 and 250 CE.

"It is assumed that the comment is sarcastic: in what appears to be an attitude of prayer, the smaller figure stands before a crucified man with the head of an ass. Contemporary Christian writers remark that pagans accuse Christians of worshiping an ass.  

"In its discussion of the graffito (under 'Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix'), the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia suggests that the graffiti artist may have seen actual Christian worship involving a crucifix, because the figure on the cross is wearing the perizoma, the short loincloth which is commonly used in Christian images of the crucifixion. (In actual crucifixions, the victim is naked)" (http://www.aug.edu/augusta/iconography/2003additions/alexamenosGraffito.html,accessed 10-14-2010).

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Note-Taking Versus "Place Memory" from Antiquity through the Renaissance and Later Circa 50 CE – 1700

"Frances Yates first called attention to memory practices as an object of historical inquiry with her pathbreaking study of the long reception of the ancient arts of memory [Yates, The Art of Memory (1966)]. The art of memory was designed to facilitate recall by associating the items to be remembered with vivid imagery, often related to the places in a building. Aristotle and Cicero explained the origins of this method from the story of Simonides who remembered all the guests who were killed at a banquet by the places they had occupied around the table. Today, still advice books on improving memory recommend similar techniques of association with vivid images and places. Yates's book has left the impression that place memory was the main method of recall used from antiquity through the Renaissance. Without denying that place memory was used, especially for short-term recall to memorize a speech or perform a feat of memory, I emphasize that for the long-term retention and accumulation of information, note-taking was the more common aid to memory. Note-taking is documented in antiquity (with Pliny) and can be surmised ans the principal means of composition of florilegia and large compilations in the Middle Ages. Starting in the Renaissance, note-taking can be studied from abundant surviving sources. Images were valued as mnemonic aids in manuscript and print, but repetition and copying out were the keystones of Renaissance pedagogy.

"As Yates herself notes, European pedagogues and scholars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were increasingly critical of place memory. Though he conceded that places could help, Erasmus maintained that 'the best memory is based on three things above all: understanding, system, and care.' The natural historian Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) complained that the investment required to learn the system of places was greater than the reward, and Gabriel Naudé (1600-53) saw it as positively pernicious because 'artifical memory spoils and perverts the natural [memory].' In the German academic world Bartholomaeus Kecermann (1571-1608) considered the arts of memory 'confused philosophically and blasphemous theologically.' Instead, these and other pedagogues in the wake of humanism advocated note-taking, which they portrayed as the best aid to memory.

"Note-taking manuals and treatises on the arts of memory formed two quite distinct traditions that made no explicit reference to one another. In practice, however, note-taking certainly did not preclude reliance on images or visual elements as mnemonic aids. For example, the abundant note-taker Conrad Gesner used an image of the hand as a mnemonic for the five Latin declensions; the hand was a widespread mnemonic image, the use of which did not involve elaborate place memory. Page layout in both manuscript and print could also facilitate recall of material from the look of the page on which it appeared...." (Blair, Too Much to Know. Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age [2010] 75-76).

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The Role of the "Ordinator" and "Sculptor" in Producing Roman Stone Inscriptions Circa 50 CE

"The making of a major Roman inscription was the business of highly efficient and professionalized guilds. The significant document in this connection is an advertisement in the form of an inscription of the first century A.D. This inscription (C.I.L. x. 7296) was in Palermo in 1885 . . . . In Latin and Greek, the advertiser says that in his premises titles were laid out and cut: Tutuli heic ordinantur et sculpuntur.  Here as M. Jean Mallon suggests, the verb ordinare must mean the advertiser had an 'ordinator' who undertook the responsibility for the mise-en-page of the text, and the designation of the type of letter, and it was he who traced on the stone the ordinatio of the text, which the sculptor exerted himself to follow with exactitude.

"There were two main types of capital, that made geometrically, and that drawn freehand. A plurality of tools was involved in the process of cutting both scripts, as may be seen from certain surviving inscriptions described by Hübner, Cagnat, and others, which include representations of the square chisel, compass, rule, curve, hammer and plumb. All this organization lay behind the inscriptions which then included the largest capitals the world had ever seen" (Morison, Politics and Script. . .Barker ed. [1972] 38).

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Composition of the Four Gospels Circa 70 CE – 110 CE

The four authors.

The canonical Four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are understood to have been composed between 70 and 110 CE.

None of the Four Gospels actually identifies its author by name, though the traditions about authorship are based on very early Christian writings that identify them. About 50 Gospels were written in the first and second century CE, each believed to be accurate by various groups within the early Christian movement.

Persecution of the early Christians by the Romans, before Christianity was adopted by the Emperor Constantine in 313, undoubtedly contributed to the scarcity of early Christian documents. 

"The relationship of early Christianity to the Jewish faith, and the foundation of the cult deeply rooted in a people accustomed to religious intolerance actually helped it take hold initially. The Jews were accustomed to resisting political authority in order to practice their religion, and the transition to Christianity among these people helped foster the sense of Imperial resistance. To the Romans, Christians were a strange and subversive group, meeting in catacombs, sewers and dark alleys, done only for their own safety, but perpetuating the idea that the religion was odd, shameful and secretive. Rumors of sexual depravity, child sacrifice and other disturbing behavior, left a stigma on the early Christians. Perhaps worst of all was the idea of cannibalism. The concept of breaking bread originating with the last supper, partaking of the blood and body of Christ, which later came to be known as Communion, was taken literally. To the Romans, where religious custom dictated following ancient practices in a literal sense, the idea of performing such a ritual as a representation was misunderstood, and the early cult had to deal with many such misperceptions" (http://www.unrv.com/culture/christian-persecution.php, accessed 12-04-2008).

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Roman Portraits Celebrating Literacy Circa 75 CE

A fresco of a Pompein couple with stylus, wax tablets, and papyrus scroll, preserved in the Museuo Archeologico Nazionale. (View Larger)

A fresco of a Pompeian couple with stylus, wax tablets, and papyrus roll from about 75 CE, shows a man holding a papyrus scroll and a woman holding a stylus to her lips for writing on the wax tablets that she holds in her other hand. It is one of several surviving Roman portraits depicting the symbols of literacy.

"This couple, who did not come from the very highest ranks of the Pompeian aristocracy, probably chose to be depicted in this way as a mark of their status—they belonged to the ranks of those who were literate, and they wished to display the fact. In this sense, the portrait is evidence that literacy was far from universal in Roman Pompeii. But it is none the less an impressive fact, typical of the Roman world and difficult to parallel before modern times, that a provincial couple should have chosen to be painted in a way that very specifically celebrated a close relationship with the written word, on the part of both the man and his wife" (Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization [2005] 162-63, plate 7.10).

The fresco is preserved in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples.

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The Last Known Datable Cuneiform Tablet 75 CE

The last known datable cuneiform tablet is an astronomical almanac from 75 CE.

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Discoveries of Greek & Roman Papyri in the Library of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, the Only Library Preserved Intact from Graeco-Roman Times 79 CE – 2015

In 79 CE the eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed the Roman coastal city of Herculaneum together with Pompeii and Stabiae. Among the vast ruins preserved in lava was the library of papyrus rolls in the so-called “Villa of the Papyri” at Herculaneum— a magnificent home thought to have been built by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. Discovery of this library in 1752, nearly seventeen centuries after the eruption, was the first and only discovery of ancient papyri in Europe.

On October 19, 1752 Neopolitan "cavamonti", who had been digging at Herculaneum since 1738 by order of Charles III of Spain (who through conquest was also Charles VII of Naples), excavated the first papyrus rolls from a large suburban villa. Over the next two years several hundred papyrus rolls were excavated from the site, and the villa from which they were excavated became known as the Villa dei Papiri (Villa of the Papyri) or Villa dei Pisoni, after its original owner. This library was the only library that survived "intact" since Graeco-Roman times.

Discovery of the Herculaneum papyri was a landmark not only in archaeology, and in the recovery of classical texts, but also in book history because until the discovery of papyrus rolls at Herculaneum no one in early modern Europe had seen the actual roll form of books from the ancient world, or even a fragment written on papyrus. When Mabillon described papyri in his De re diplomatica (1681) he had not seen an actual example.

Papyrus rolls did not survive in humid environments, and for this reason information on rolls that might have survived into the early Middle Ages had either been lost through the decay of the rolls, or had been copied onto parchment codices for preservation before the rolls were lost or discarded. By about 1200, when paper was introduced into Europe, the precise nature of ancient papyrus as a writing surface had been for the most part forgotten. Without a medieval Latin word for paper, which was new to Europeans, scholars reapplied the old word papyrus to paper. Papyrus remained the Latin word for paper until the early seventeenth century. This double usage of the word, as Christopher de Hamel pointed out, sometimes led scholars to confuse the comparatively modern material (paper) with the material referred to by ancient Christian writers, who wrote on papyrus. 

The papyrus rolls discovered at Herculaneum had been carbonized by lava, and all were deformed to some extent because of the weight of the lava that had covered them over the centuries. Paradoxically, the carbonization process had preserved the rolls and their content, but made unrolling them and reading them exceptionally difficult. In spite of the state in which the papyrus rolls were found they were examples of the Roman papyrus roll and the form in which the rolls were stored in a Roman library. Besides the libary at the Villa of the Papyri,  frescos also discovered at Herculaneum showed how the Roman books were kept.

The first account of the Herculaneum papyri to reach the scientific world was a brief mention in a letter from the artist, sculptor and art restorer Camillo Paderni, director of the Museum Herculanense, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.  The first of these, an extract of a letter to Richard Mead, was written on November 18, 1752, only a month after the discovery, and read to the Royal Society on February 8, 1753. This letter contained a brief extract of what was then the earliest surviving manuscript of Latin poetry, P.Herc 817. In this letter Paderni reported:

"it is not a month ago [specifically October 19, 1752] that there have been found many volumes of papyrus, but turn'd to a sort of charcoal, so brittle, that, being touched, it falls readily into ashes. Nevertheless, by his Majesty's orders, I have made many trials to open them, butt all to no purpose, excepting some words which I have picked out intire, where they are divers bits, by which it appears in what manner the whole was written. The form of the characters, made with very black tincture, that overcomes the darkness of the charcoal. . . ."

Paderni's letter contained portions of two continguous hexameters from P.Herc.817P.Herc. 817, containing the text of Carmen de bello actiaco, sometimes known as the Carmen de Bello Aegyptiaco, was the most substantial Latin papyrus discovered in 1752 in the library of the Villa dei Papiri. Written in Italy between 31 BCE, the date of the battle of Actium, and 79 CE, when Herculaneum was destroyed, this is one of the two earliest manuscripts of Latin poetry, the other being the slightly earlier fragment of the poetry of Gaius Cornellus Gallus discovered in 1978 at Qasr Ibrim, Egypt. The twenty-three papyrus fragments of the poem Carmen de Bello Actiaco preserved in Naples at the Biblioteca Nazionale, and in Paris at the Louvre, represent the earliest surviving dated examples of rustic capitals

"Latin Rustic probably began its career as a rationalized version of official and popular writing, fused with a loosening version of the Square Capitals, the whole written with a pen cut specially for speed. It secured a measure of public approval in Rome during or before the first century B.C., though the evidence is slight" (Stanley Morison, Politics and Script . . . Barker ed. [1972] 43; see also 41-43, and pl. 34.

Two other letters by Paderni were also published in Philosophical Transactions. His second letter, to Thomas Hollis, was dated April 27, 1754 and read to the Royal Society on June 13, 1754, reported that excavators had discovered an entire library:

"In one of these buildings there has been found an entire library, compos'd of volumes of the Egyptian Papyrus, of which there have been taken out about 250; and the place is not yet clear'd or emptied, it having been deem'd necessary to erect props first, to keep the earth, which lies above it, from falling in upon it. These volumes of Papyrus consist of Latin, and Greek manuscripts, but from their brittleness, occasion'd by the fire and time, it is not possible to unroll them, they being now decay'd and rotten. His majesty however has done his part; having sent for a certain monk from Rome [Padre Antonio Piaggio], who belong'd to the Vatican library; in hopes, by his means, to have unfolded them; but hitherto in vain.

'Your servant Paderni alone can shew some fragments of several lines, and more than this he is much afraid will never been seen. Of these there are many in my custody, which I suppose you will have the pleasure of observing in the intended catalogue. There have been found those small tables [i.e. wax tablets] which they are cover'd with what was called the palimpseston, then wrote on them with the stylus; but all these are become a kind of cinder, and have likewise suffer'd by the damps; from both which circumstances they are now so tender, that they break with the touch."

Paderni's third letter, also to Hollis, was dated October 18, 1754 and read to the Royal Society on December 12, 1754. In this letter he explained what he meant by a library, as up to this time no one in Europe had a clear idea of what the interior of an ancient Roman library would look like:

"As yet we have only entered into one room, the floor of which is formed of mosaic work, not unelegant. It appears to have been a library, adorned with presses, inlaid with different sorts of wood, disposed in rows; at the top of which were cornices, as in our own times. I was buried in this spot for more than twelve days, to carry off the volumes found there; many of which were so perished, that it was impossible to remove them. Those, which I took away, amounted to the number of three hundred thirty-seven, all of them at present incapable of being opened. These are all written in Greek characters. While I was busy in this work, I observed a large bundle, which, from the size, I imagined must contain more than a single volume. I tried with the utmost care to get it out, but could not, from the damp and weight of it. However I perceived, that it consisted, of about eighteen volumes, each of which was in length a palm and three Neapolitan inches; being the longest hitherto discovered. They were wrapped about with the bark of a tree, and covered at each end with a piece of wood. All these were written in Latin, as appears by a few words, which broke off from them. I was in hopes to have got something out of them, but they are in a worse condition than the Greek. From the latter the public will see some intire columns, having myself had the good fortune to extract two, and many other fine fragments. Of all these an account is drawing up, which will be published together with the other Greek characters, now engraving on copper-plates and afterwards make separate work by themselves. . . At present the monk, who was sent for from Rome, to try to open the former manuscripts, has begun to give us some hopes in respect to one of them. Those which I have opened, are philosophical tracts the subjects of which are known to me; but I am not liberty to be more explicit. When they are published they are to be immediately conveyed to you. That first papyri, of which I formerly acquainted you, were in a separate room, adjoining to the beforementioned palace." 

Because of the difficulty in reading the carbonized documents, the first publication of the texts of Herculaneum papyri occurred forty years after their discovery, in 1793 with the issue of the first volume of Herculanensium voluminum quae supersunt in Naples. Because of the fragility of the papyrus burned and preserved in lava, Paderni did not attempt to unroll P.Herc. 817  until 1805, at which time apographs were drawn by Carlo Orazi. The first coherent publication of its text appeared in the second volume of Herculanensium Voluminum (Naples, 1809) without facsimiles or reproductions of the papyrus. Orazi's apographs were taken to Palermo before the French occupation of Naples in 1806, but facsimiles of P.Herc. 817 were not published until nearly 80 years later. Efforts to read the remainder of the papyri proceeded very gradually; this series was completed in 11 volumes in 1855. Two hundred years after their discovery many of the Herculaneum papyri remained illegible to scholars, even after sophisticated imaging techniques were applied.

In 1800 the Prince of Wales (later George IV) decided to support the unrolling and deciphering of the papyri found at Herculaneum in 1752, and sent his chaplain in ordinary John Hayter to Naples, who was an expert on antiquities, to take charge of the "Officina" and direct the work. By this time, perhaps out of appropriate caution, or because of the difficulty involved, only 18 of the approximately 1800 manuscripts found in the Villa dei Papiri had been unrolled. It is thought that Padierni opened only the rolls that he thought were most promising from the textual standpoint.

Discussing the background of the project, in 1800 Hayter issued a few copies of a 22-page pamphlet entitled the Herculanean and Pompeian Manuscripts. This was written in the form of a letter to the Prince of Wales. By this time the papyri had been moved to Palermo. Hayter began operations in 1802 at Portici, near Naples. He had charge of the papyri from 1802 to 1806. In four years about two hundred rolls were opened, and nearly one hundred copied in lead-pencil facsimiles under Hayter's superintendence.

In 1802 Ferdinand IV, King of Naples and the Two Sicilies, in a diplomatic move, offered six rolls of Herculaneum papyrus as a gift to First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. Eager to discover the contents of these artefacts — some of the most impressive examples — Bonaparte handed them over to the Institut de France in Paris. There the mathematician and keen archaeologist Gaspard Monge, and Vivant Denon, the "founder" of the Louvre, were put in charge of unrolling the rolls. When the French invaded southern Italy in 1806, Hayter followed King Ferdnand into exile in Palermo, Sicily, and the original papyri fell into the hands of the French. The lead-pencil facsimiles also passed out of Hayter's hands, but were recovered from the Neapolitan authorities through the influence of William Drummond of Logiealmond, the British minister. Between 1807 and 1808 copperplates were incised at Palermo under Hayter's direction, and shipped to England where, instead of being published as Hayter had planned, they were archived at Oxford's Bodleian Library. Meanwhile, during the last illness of George III, the Prince of Wales became the Prince Regent, and would ascend to the throne in 1820 at the death of his father. In 1811 Hayter issued a rather grand volume on the project, printed in unusually large type, and illustrated with fine color mezzotint plates, entitled, A Report upon the Herculaneum Manuscripts, in a Second Letter, Addressed, by Permission to his Royal Highness the Prince Regent. The volume discusses Hayter's experience with the papyri in detail, and includes some beautiful color images of the papyrus plant, but no reproductions of papyri. It also reprints the text of Hayter's first (1800) letter to the Prince. My copy is bound in the original pink boards with its title printed in large boldface letters on the upper cover. Hayter's series of reproductions of P.Herc 817 and other papyri were mostly not published until 1885, in an appendix to Fragmenta Herculanensia: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Oxford Copies of the Herculanean Rolls by Walter Scott. The first photographs of any of the fragments were published by Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores III (1938) 385.

In 1816 some of the Herculaneum papyrus fragments which had been brought to Paris and London were entrusted to the German polymath and archaeologist Friedrich Carl Sickler who attempted to unroll them, but in the process destroyed several. As a record of this experience Sickler published a pamphlet entitled Herculaneum Rolls. Correspondence Relative to a Proposition Made by Dr. Sickler of Hildberghausen Relative to Their Development (London, 1817).

Following this the chemist Sir Humphrey Davy travelled to the museum at Naples, reported on the state of the papyri found there, and attempted to unroll some of them in Naples, and to use chlorine to unroll some of those in London. Even though he employed scientific care some destruction occurred. Davy published his results as "Some Observations and Experiments on the Papyri Found at Herculaneum," Philosophical Transactions, III (1821) 191-208, plates XI-XVIII, include some of Hayter's reproductions published for the first time. These were probably the earliest reproductions of papyrus fragments published in England. When historian of libraries Edward Edwards published his Memoirs of Libraries I (1859) he was able to get permission from the Royal Society to reproduce Davy's plates from the original copperplates which were still preserved. These he reproduced in his account of Davy's work facing facing p. 72.


In 1999 researchers at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, began to apply multispectral imaging, a technique originally designed for the study of extraterrestrial planetary surfaces, to the study of ancient documents that were difficult to read. One of the successes of this project was the revelation of the texts of the documents from Herculaneum.

♦ On December 19, 2013 BBC News published an article by Robin Banerji entitled Unlocking the scrolls of HerculaneumThis contained the best illustrated summary that I had seen to date of the history of the problems in unrolling and deciphering the Herculaneum papyri. (Thanks to my friend William P. Watson for directing my attention to this, and the following paper.)

♦ On January 20, 2015 in an article entitled X-ray technique 'reads' burnt Vesuvius scroll Jonathan Webb reported on bbc.com that a 3D X-ray imagining technique sometimes used in breast scans had been successful in reading some of the Herculaneum papyri without unrolling them. Webb's article summarized a paper by Vito Mocella and colleagues: "Revealing letters in rolled Herculaeum papyri by X-ray phase-contrast imaging," Nature Comunications, January 20, 2015. In the United States The New York Times published an equally interesting article by Nicholas Wade, with different illustrations entitled "Unlocking Scrolls Preserved in Eruption of Vesuvius, Using X-Ray Beams." On January 21, 2015 further information and a photograph of the researchers was available from artdaily.org at this link.


The most useful modern study of the library is David Sider's The Library of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum (2005).

The classic study of the excavation of Herculaneum through 1908, which impressed upon its readers the necessity for further excavation, was Waldstein & Shoobridge, Herculaneum Past Present and Future (1908). This includes a very useful historical bibliography. In 2011 Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, issued the most beautiful large-format full color book entitled Herculaneum, Past and Future. The volume included hundreds of color photographs, numerous full color maps and charts, and several double-foldout 360 degree views. Reading this book truly gives one the feeling of being in the ancient place.

 (This entry was last revised on 01-21-2015.)

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Over 11,000 Wall Inscriptions Survived from Pompeii 79 CE

An inscription depicting a contemporaneous politician. (View Larger)

The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius over two days in 79 CE buried the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii in lava, destroying life, but preserving buildings in a remarkable way.

From the ruins of Pompeii over 11,000 inscriptions have been recorded—of many different kinds—carved, painted  or scratched into walls, formal, humorous, erotic, and scatological. They reflect wide use of writing and comparatively wide availability of literacy in Roman society.

"Some of them [the inscriptions] are very grand and formal, like the dedications of public buildings and the funerary epitaphs, similar to others found all over the Roman world. Inscriptions such as these are not necessarily good evidence of widespread literacy. The enormous numbers that were produced in Roman times could reflect a fashion for this particular medium of display, rather than a dramatic spread of the ability to read and write.

"Other Pompeian inscriptions are perhaps more telling, because they display a desire to cummunicate in a less formal and more ephemeral way with fellow citizens. Walls on the main streets of Pompeii are often decorated with painted messages, whose regular script and layout reveal the work of professional sign-writers. Some are advertisements for events such as games in the amphitheatre; others are endoresements of candiates for civic office, by individuals and groups within the city. . . .

"Graffiti offer even more striking evidence of the spread and use of writing in Pompeian society. These are found all over the city, scratched into stone or plaster by townspeople with time on their hands and a message to convey to future idlers. . . .

"Even though we cannot estimate the proportion of Pompeians who were literate (was it 30 per cent, or more, or perhaps on 10 per cent ?) we can say with confidence that writing was an essential, and a day-to-day part of the city's life" (Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization [2005] 153-54, & 155-57).

Because graffiti such as those preserved in Pompeii were intended to be widely shared some have called these evidence of early social media. 

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The Sole Surviving Example of Roman Literary Cursive Script and the Earliest Example of a Parchment Codex Circa 100 CE – 250 CE

The fragment of De Bellis Macedonicis, the oldest suriving remains of a Latin manuscreipt written on parchment rather than papyrus. (View Larger)

British Library Papyrus 745, a fragment of a anonymous work entitled De bellis Macedonicis, found at Oxyrthynchus, Egypt, and acquired by the British Museum in 1900, is the oldest surviving remains of a Latin manuscript written on parchment rather than papyrus. Thought to date from about 100 CE, it is the sole surviving example of Roman Literary Cursive Script, and because it is written on both sides of the parchment, it is also "the earliest example of a membrane [parchment] codex, of the type advocated by the poet Martial in the first century" (Brown, A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 [1990] no. 4 and plate 4.)

"Athough it was possibly written as early as AD 100, De Bellis has certain letterforms which have unmistakable Uncial character. And, most significantly, it used a slanted pen angle which was copied by all the early Uncial scripts. . . ." (Stan Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance [2009] 35).

According to Brown, palaeographer E. A. Lowe dated this fragment in the third century CE.

Bischoff, Latin Palaeography:Antiquity and Middle Ages (1990) 9.

(This entry was last revised on 08-18-2014.)

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The Oldest Surviving Handwritten Documents in Britain Circa 100 CE

Vindolanda Tablet 309, an inventory of wooden goods dispatched dispatched by and to civilians working for the military. (View Larger, with translation.)

The Vindolanda Writing Tablets, excavated from the Roman fort at Vindolanda, one of the main military posts on the Northern frontier of Britain before the building of Hadrian's Wall, were written in carbon ink on wafer-thin slices of wood around 100 CE. The tablets were excavated in 1973 near the modern village of Bardon Mill from waterlogged conditions in rubbish deposits in and around the commanding officer's residence. Experts have identified the handwriting of hundreds of different people in these documents. They confirm that the officers of Vindolanda were most certainly literate, and that some soldiers in the ranks may also have been literate.

"These, and hundreds of other fragments which have come to light in subsequent excavations, are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain.

"Most of the tablets are official military documents relating to the auxiliary units stationed at the fort. However, others are private letters sent to or written by the serving soldiers. The content is fascinating, giving us a remarkable insight into the working and private lives of the Roman garrison. They also display a great variety of individual handwriting, which adds to our knowledge of Roman cursive writing around AD 100.

"The tablets are not made of wood and wax, previously thought to be the most popular medium for writing in the Roman world apart from papyrus. Instead they are wafer thin slices of wood, written on with carbon ink and quill-type pens. Even after specialised conservation the exacavated tablets are fragile and require a carefully controlled environment" (British Museum, Our Top Ten British Treasures, accessed 05-10-2009).

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The Most Famous Example of Roman Square Capitals 113 CE

Completion of the inscription incised at the base of Trajan’s Column in Rome occurred in 113 CE. The inscription, which was set at the top of the column's 15-foot  (4.5 m) pedestal, was defaced in the 9th or 10th century to accomodate a V-shaped gable placed over a door.

“This is perhaps the most famous example of Roman square capitals, a script often used for stone monuments, and less often for manuscript writing. As it was meant to be read from below, the bottom letters are slightly smaller than the top letters, to give proper perspective. Some, but not all, word divisions are marked with a dot, and many of the words, especially the titles, are abbreviated. In the inscription, numerals are marked with a titulus, a bar across the top of the letters” (Wikipedia article on Trajan's Column, accessed 08-09-2009).

According to Stan Knight, Roman inscriptions were usually completed with a layer of minium (red lead) painted in the incised letters. Minium can range in color from light to vivid red and may contain brown to yellow tints, such as burnt sienna. Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance (2009) A2 (pp. 16-17, with excellent images)

♦ After the invention of printing by movable type in Europe in the mid-15th century, Roman letters from stone inscriptions became a major source of inspiration for punch-cutters and type designers. The fifteenth century Roman typeface designed by Nicolas Jenson, and the Roman typeface commissioned by Aldus Manutius and cut by Francesco Griffo, both of which are known as Antiqua, or "Venetian oldstyle", have been called syntheses of Roman stone inscriptions and Carolingian minuscule.

(This entry was last revised on 08-18-2014.)


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The Longest Ancient Stone Inscription Circa 125 CE

Originally about 25,000 words long, filling 260 square meters of wall space, the summary of the philosophy of Epicurus by Diogenes of Oenoanda carved onto a portico wall in the ancient city of Oenoanda in Lycia, Anatolia (now southwest Turkey) is the longest surviving Greek stone inscription. It has also been called "die größte antike Inschrift der Welt" (the largest ancient inscription in the world). Less than a third of the original inscription has been recovered. The inscription was assigned on epigraphic grounds to the period of the Roman emperior Hadrian. The inscription expounds upon Epicurus's teachings on physics, epistemology, and ethics.

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The Finest Surviving Example of Roman Monumental Lettering in Britain 130 CE

Fragments of a sandstone inscription from the entrance to the Forum Viroconium Cornoviorum, part of a Roman settlement at present-day Wroxeter, near Shrewsbury, England, were discovered by archaeologist Donald Atkinson during his excavation of the Forum in 1923-24. The inscription records that the Forum was erected by the Cornovii community during the fourteenth year of the reign of the Emperior Hadrian. The exceptional quality of the writing has been used by some as evidence that Hadrian visited the city during his brief visit to Britain in 121-22 CE; it was argued that only a mason travelling in Hadrian's entourage would have been able to carve to such a high standard. This argument has since been disputed.

The inscription, which measures 107 x 345 cm, is preserved in Rowley's House Museum, Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery, Shrewsbury.

"Athough damaged, it is the largest and undoubtedly the finest surviving example of Roman monumental lettering in Britain" (Stan Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance (2009) A4 (pp. 20-21, with excellent images).

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The Earliest Runic Inscriptions Circa 150 CE

"The earliest runic inscriptions date from around A.D. 150. The characters were generally replaced by the Latin alphabet as the cultures that had used runes underwent Christianization by around A.D. 700 in central Europe and by around A.D. 1100 in Northern Europe. However, the use of runes persisted for specialized purposes in Northern Europe. Until the early 20th century runes were used in rural Sweden for decoration purposes in Dalarna and on Runic calendars.

"The three best-known runic alphabets are the Elder Futhark (around 150 to 800 AD), the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (400 to 1100 AD), and the Younger Futhark (800–1100). The Younger Futhark is further divided into the long-branch runes (also called Danish, although they were also used in Norway and Sweden), short-branch or Rök runes (also called Swedish-Norwegian, although they were also used in Denmark), and the stavesyle or Hälsinge runes (staveless runes). The Younger Futhark developed further into the Marcomannic runes, the Medieval runes (1100 AD to 1500 AD), and the Dalecarlian runes (around 1500 to 1800 AD).

"The origins of the runic alphabet are uncertain. Many characters of the Elder Futhark bear a close resemblance to characters from the Latin alphabet. Other candidates are the 5th to 1st century BC Northern Italic alphabets: Lepontic, Rhaetic and Venetic, all of which are closely related to each other and descend from the Old Italic alphabet" (Wikipedia article Runic alphabet, accessed 10-26-2010).

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A Door-to-Door Bookseller in Egypt, Second Century CE Circa 150 CE

P. Petaus 30, an Egyptian papyrus fragment of a private letter in Greek from Roman Julius Placidus to his father, written about 150 CE by Petaus (Petaus komogrammateus) a village scribe of Ptolemais Hormou (El-Lahun) and surrounding villages, reads in translation as follows:

"Julius Placidus to his father Herclanus, greeting. Dius came to us and showed us six parchment codices (tas membranas hex). We selected none of those, but collated eight, for which I paid on account 100 drachmas. You will be on the lookout in any case. . . I hope you are well. . .by Julius Placidus."

"We get a glimpse here of the ancient counterpart of the door-to-door bookseller. Among his offerings are parchment codices. These were apparently inscribed with texts but were perhaps not well inscribed, since six were not bought. It is not clear whether the eight others that were collated and purchased were rolls or codices . . . (Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church [1995] 53).

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The Earliest Known Runic Inscription Circa 160 CE

The Vimose Comb. (View Larger)

The Vimose Comb, from Vimose, Funen, Denmark, is considered the oldest datable Elder Futhark runic inscription in late Proto-Germanic or early Proto-Norse

This and other slightly later items from Vimose dating from circa 200-300 CE, are known as the Vimose inscriptions.

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One of the Oldest Papyrus Codices of the New Testament Circa 175 CE – 250 CE

Papyrus 46 (P-46), an incomplete papyrus codex containing most of the Pauline epistles in Greek, remains one of the oldest surviving manuscripts of some of the earliest Christian documents, which were originally written circa 51-58 CE. P-46, estimated to have been written between 175 and 250 CE, is also one of oldest surviving manuscripts of the New Testament. The provenance of the papyrus is unknown, although it was probably originally discovered in the ruins of an early Christian church or monastery. Following its discovery in Cairo, the manuscript was broken up by the dealer. Ten leaves were purchased by Chester Beatty in 1930; the University of Michigan acquired six in 1931 and 24 in 1933. Beatty purchased 46 more in 1935, and his acquisitions now form part of the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri– eleven codices of biblical material.

Dating of this manuscript is problematic with dates ranging from the first century CE to the third century CE.  See Griffin, The Paleographical Dating of P-46 (1996).

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The Diptych Document Format 198 CE

An unusually well-preserved diptych dated 198 CE in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, shows how this document format was used during the Roman empire.

"The diptych contains the appointment of a guardian for a woman by the prefect of Egypt. The main body of the text inscribed on the wax is in Latin, followed by a subscription written in Greek by an amanuensis on behalf of the woman, who was illiterate. On the outside there are copies of these sections and a list of the names of seven witnesses, all written in ink directly on the wood. The diptych was originally tied shut and sealed with the seals of the witnesses to prevent tampering with the inner text, the authenticated version, while the exterior text remained available for consultation" (Hunt, R.W., The Survival of the Classics, Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1975, no. 32.)

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Curse Tablets from Roman Britain Circa 200 CE – 400 CE

In 1979 and 1980, the Bath curse tablets (tabella defixionis, defixio) were excavated from the sacred hot spring at the Aquae Sulis in the Roman province of Britannia (now Bath, England). The 130 tablets or defixiones primarily invoked the intercession of the goddess Sulis Minerva for the return of belongings or money stolen while the victim was bathing. Their language is of special value as examples of the everyday spoken vernacular of the Romano-British population during the second to fourth centuries CE. Since the language on these tablets came to light this language became known as "British Latin." 

While most texts from Roman Britain are in Latin, two scripts found at Aquae Sulis, written in Roman lettering on pewter sheets, are in an unknown Celtic language, which may be Brythonic— the only examples of writing in what is thought to be the unwritten language of the Celtic people known as the Britons.  

"All but one of the 130 Bath curse tablets concern the restitution of stolen goods and are a type of curse tablet known as 'prayers for justice.' The complaints of thefts are generally of personal possessions from the baths such as jewelry, gemstones, money, household goods and especially clothing. Theft from public baths appears to have been a common problem as it was a well-known Roman literary stereotype and severe laws existed to punish the perpetrators. Most of the depositors of the tablets (the victims of the thefts) appear to have been from the lower social classes.

"The inscriptions generally follow the same formula, suggesting they were taken from a handbook: the stolen property is declared as having been transferred to a deity so that the loss becomes the deity’s loss; the suspect is named and, in 21 cases, so is the victim; the victim then asks the deity to visit afflictions on the thief (including death) not as a punishment but to induce the thief to hand the stolen items back. The deity whose help was invoked is Sulis, and the tablets were deposited by the victims in the spring that was sacred to her" (Wikipedia article on Bath Curse Tablets, accessed 07-13-2014).

Over eighty other Roman curse tablets were discovered in and about the remains of a temple to Mercury at West Hill, Uley, making south-western Britain one of the major centers for finds of Latin defixiones. Smaller numbers of tablets were also found at the the sites of Roman temples at Lydney (Gloucestershire), Brean Down (Somerset), the Pagans Hill Roman Temple (Somerset), the amphitheatre of the legionary fortress of Isca Augusta at Caerleon, South Wales, and the small towns at Chesterton-on-Fosse (Warwickshire) and Leintwardine  (Herefordshire).

In July 2014 images, transcriptions, and English translations of many of the tablets were available from the Curse Tablets from Roman Britain website operated by the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents at Oxford.

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The Earliest Stage of Half-Uncial Circa 250 CE – 350 CE

In Politics and Script. . . . Barker ed. (1972) Stanley Morison considered a fragment of a papyrus roll of the Epitome of Livy preserved in the British Museum (P. 1532) to be the earliest stage of half-uncial calligraphy. The papyrus was found at Oxyhynchus, Egypt in 1903 "along with cursive documents of the second, third, and fourth centures. In the first half of the fourth century the back of the roll was used to write the Epistle to the Hebrews in Greek uncial (P. Oxy. No. 657), which furnishes a terminus ad quem for the Latin script. Acquired by the British Museum in 1906" (Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores II, no. 208).

Grenfell & Hunt, Oxyrhynchus Papyri IV (1904) 90 describe the writing on this papyrus as "a medium-sized upright uncial, with some admixture of minuscule forms (b, d), and belongs to the same class as the Vergil fragment (P. Oxy. I, Plate viii) and the Bodleian Chronicles of Eusebius (Palaegraphical Soc. II. Plate 130), but is an earliest example of the mixed style than has hitherto been known. . . ." 

Lowe, characterized the script as "calligraphic but provincial," partly in uncial and "b, d, r, m" as "distinctly half-uncial." 

Morison, Politics and Script, 78-79, pl. 57.  

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Death of Wei Tan, Discoverer of Ink 251 CE

The death of Wei Tan, to whom the Chinese attribute the discovery of ink used for writing, and later for printing, occurred in 251.

Carter, Invention of Printing in China 2nd ed [1955] 32.

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The Transition from Papyrus to Parchment Circa 300 CE – 700

"By the fourth century, the use of parchment for books was so widespread in the West that we can speak of a general transition from papyrus to parchment in the book-making process. This was of decisive importance for the preservation of literature because only very few papyrus fragments from medieval libraries have survived, since the European climate is inimical to this material. Nonetheless, in the sixth century AD the law codes of Justinian I were distributed from Byzantium in papyrus as well as in parchment manuscripts. One of the latest western papyrus books preserved (c. saec. VII-VIII) [circa 7-8th century] is a Luxeuil codex containing works of Augustine, in which interleaved parchment leaves protect the middle and the outside of the gatherings" (Bischoff, Latin Palaeography, Antiquity and the Middle Ages [1990] 8).

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Costs of Professional Writing Measured by the Normal Length of a Line in a Verse of Virgil 303 CE

Piece of the edict in Pergamonmuseum Berlin.

Bust of Diocletian, Roman emperor at the end of the third century AD.  In 301, in an effort to control inflation, he implemented the Edict on Maximum Prices.

"At the time of the conversion to Christianity, Rome had twenty-eight libraries within its walls and book production was so well established a line of business that Diocletian, in his price edict [Edict on Maximum Prices (also known as the Edict on Prices or the Edict of Diocletian; in Latin Edictum De Pretiis Rerum Venalium)] set rates for various qualities of script: for one hundred lines in 'scriptura optima', twenty-five denarii; for somewhat lesser script, twenty denarii, and for functional script ('scriptura libelii bel tabularum'), ten denarii. The unit of valuation was the normal length of line in a verse of Virgil [Vergil]. The extent of a work is given in these units at the end of some manuscripts (stichometry), and stichometric lists survive for biblical books and for the writings of Cyprian" (Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages [1990] 182).

Laufer, Diokletians Preisedikt (1971).

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A Sarcophagus Showing a Greek Physician in His Library Circa 320 CE

A Roman sarcophagus from Ostia, Italy, dating from about 320 and preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, depicts a Greek physician in his library reading a papyrus roll with a book cabinet in which other rolls are visible. On top of the book cabinet an open case depicts surgical instruments.

A warning inscribed on the sarcophagus in Greek may be translated as:

"If anyone shall dare to bury another person along with this one, he shall pay to the treasury three times two thousand [whatever the unit was]. This is what he shall pay to [the city of] Portus, but he himself will endure the eternal punishment of the violator of graves."

"The tomb's owner is shown seated with an open scroll, the pose of a philosopher, demonstrating that he is a learned man. His profession can be identified by the open case containing surgical tools on the cabinet top. Other scrolls and a basin for bleeding patients within the cabinet offer further proof of his profession. The style of his dress and the language of the inscription indicate that he was one of the many Greeks living in Italy. Beginning in the 300s, Christians would adopt in their art the philosopher pose and the undulating motifs, or strigils, that appear on the sides of the sarcophagus" (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/48.76.1, accessed 10-25-2011).

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The Codex Sinaiticus Circa 330 CE – 360 CE

The Codex Sinaiticus. (View Larger)

The Codex Sinaiticus (formerly known as the Codex Sinaiticus Petropolitanus) was written in Koine Greek in the mid-4th century, by at least three scribes. The codex was written in uncial majuscule in scriptio continua, without word division, punctuation or pagination; it incorporates two ancient methods for numbering its quires, and it also incorporates a version of the system of numbering the paragraphs of the Gospels developed by Eusebius of Caesarea. It was written in a four-column format except for the poetical and wisdom literature in which a two-column format was used. This is the only surviving biblical manuscript employing the four-column page format, and it has been suggested that this is reminiscent of the papyrus roll format rather than the codex. It is thought that the codex was written somewhere in Asia Minor, Palestine (Caesarea?) or Egypt.

The Codex Sinaiticus is unique among ancient manuscripts for the number of corrections that were made to it by ancient correctors.  In his monograph on the codex (reference below, p. 76) D. C. Parker states that there may be as many as 27,000 corrections to the text. The number of corrections and the care in which they were made suggests, according to Parker, the importance that may have been given to this manuscript early in its history.

Originally the Codex Sinaiticus contained the Old Testament, according to the canon of the Greek Septuagint, including the books known in English as the Apocrypha, (but without 2 and 3 Maccabees), along with the New Testament and two other early Christian books—the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas. The complete codex originally consisted of at least 97 quires, each containing 8 leaves or 16 pages, incorporating a total of 776 leaves. In its current form the codex comprises just over 400 leaves, each of which measure 380 mm (15 in.) high by 345 mm (13.5 in.) wide. In size and extent this represented a quantum leap from the papyrus codices in which early Christian documents were most typically written. Most papyrus codices are thought to have contained only one of the Gospels, and the most it is thought that could have been incorporated in the largest papyrus codex would have been the Gospels and Acts.

Compared to the smaller papyrus codices, from the standpoint of book history the completion of the Codex Sinaiticus on parchment may represent an achievement comparable to Gutenberg's invention of printing by movable type more than 1000 years later. However, just over half of the original book survived, now dispersed between four institutions: St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai (where the manuscript was discovered), the British Library, Leipzig University Library, and the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg. At the British Library the largest surviving portion - 347 leaves, or 694 pages - includes the whole of the New Testament. The other institutions hold portions of the Septuagint, which also survived almost complete, plus the Epistle of Barnabas, and portions of The Shepherd of Hermas

After his conversion to Christianity the Emperor Constantine  commissioned fifty Greek Bibles for the churches of his new capitol, Constantinople, and ever sincer the Codex Sinaiticus was discovered it was speculated that the Codex Sinaiticus was among those commissioned. However, there is no evidence to substantiate this speculation. None of the fifty copies has ever been conclusively identified.

In February 2014 a digital facsimile of the Codex and podcasts about the manuscript were available from the British Library at this link.

All surviving portions of the Codex were joined in a virtual electronic edition at Codexsinaiticus.org.

♦ Please use the exact phrase keyword search under Codex Sinaiticus to locate several other entries in this database pertinent to this codex as it appears in book history over the centuries.

For a general guide to the codex see  Parker, Codex Sinaiticus. The Story of the World's Oldest Bible (2010).

♦ It is one thing to write about a book; it is another thing altogether to see it and handle it; I would never even dream of being allowed to handle this priceless volume. However, in February 2014 I acquired through Amazon.com the full color facsimile edition of the Codex Sinaiticus published by the British Library and Henrickson Publishers in 2010. I noticed this facsimile when it was originally advertised, but resisted purchasing. Then, when it appeared that the facsimile was being remaindered, I acquired a new copy for only $300, plus only $3.99 shipping. I emphasize only $3.99 because the facsimile in its double shipping box weighed 15.5 kg or over 35 pounds, and even though it was sent by media mail, the seller obviously had to pay far more to ship it than Amazon would allow them to charge. Like the priceless original codex, the facsimile is a stunningly impressive volume 43 x 35.5 cm, very finely printed on heavy art paper, and very sturdily bound in a strong slipcase. The volume is 8.5 cm thick. The "Reference Guide" included with the volume indicates that the publishers had to reduce the images of the pages very slightly, by approximately 5%, "to bring the pages down to the maximum size which could be bound by machine." Through hefting this volume and paging through it one can get a sense of the magnificent physicality of the achievement that is the Codex Sinaiticus.

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The Oldest Surviving Manuscript of the Comedies of Terence Circa 350 CE – 450 CE

Dating from the fourth or fifth century, the Codex Bembinus (Vatican Library Vat. lat. 3226) is the oldest surviving manuscript containing all or portions of the six comedies, or Fabulae, of Terence. It is written in Rustic Capitals

"The marginal gloss is in a Cursive Half-Uncial, the handwriting of the educated person of late Antiquity which, as in this example, would often be used for annotation of formal works. It consists of a rapid form of Half-Uncial, as the name suggests" (Brown, A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 [1990] no. 7, plate 7).

In the middle of the 15th century the manuscript belonged to Gianantonio de' Pandoni (Porcellio) when in 1457 it was acquired by humanist Bernardo Bembo. It later passed into the collection of humanist, collector and archaeologist Fulvio Orsini, and entered the Vatican Library in 1600.

Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars 3rd. ed., (1991) 36.

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The Earliest Surviving Document of the Christian Book Trade and Stichometry Circa 350 CE – 825

The earliest surviving document recording the Christian book trade is a stichometric price-list of books of the Bible and of Cyprian's works, the Indiculum Caecilii Cypriani orignally written in Africa, probably in Carthage shortly after 350. The charges for writing in Latin are calculated on a per line basis, using the length of a typical line of Virgil (Vergil) or 16 syllables, as the standard, or stichos. Lines measured in this way were called stichoi (στιχοι or επη) from the Greek standard based on the length of an average Homeric hexameter, similarly consisting of 16 syllables. Our source for this Greek writing standard is Galen, De Placitis Hippocratis et Platonis (On the Opinions of Hippocrates and Plato) Viii.I. 

One motive that the anonymous author of this text seems to have had was to provide a method of checking up on dishonest scribes and booksellers. He wrote:

"Because the index of verses in Rome is not clearly given, and because in other places too, as a result of greed, they do not preserve it in full, I have gone through the books one by one, counting sixteen syllables per line, and have appended to each book the number of Virgilian hexameters it contains" (Translated in Rouse & McNelis, 205). 

In their study of the Indiculum Caecilii Cypriani Rouse & McNelis (reference below) state (p. 202) that "the use of stichometry seems to die in the Latin West in late antiquity."

The earliest surviving text of this work is the collection of texts called Cod. Sang. 133, preserved in the Abbey library of St. Gall (St. Gallen), and probably written there in the late 8th or early 9th century. Chronologically, the next surviving copy of this text is Vitt. Em. 1325 (formerly Cheltenham or Phillipps 12266), written at Nonantola Abbey in the 10th or early 11th century, and now preserved in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma.

Bischoff, Manuscripts and Libraries in the Age of Charlemagne (2007) 2. Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and Middle Ages (1990) 184. Rouse & McNelis, "North African literary activity: A Cyprian fragment, the stichometric lists and a Donatist compendium," Revue d'histoire des textes, 30 (2000) 189-238.

♦ Special thanks to Jean-Baptiste Piggin, whose 5-28-2011 post in his Macro-Typography blog regarding the Cod. Sang. 133, enabled me to revise and improve this database entry on 05-29-2011.

In February 2014 a digital facsimile of Cod. Sang. 133 was available at this link.

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"To Fronto Belongs the Unique Distinction of Surviving Solely as the Lower Script in No Fewer than Three Palimpsests" (Reynolds) Circa 350 CE – 475 CE

A bust of Fronto. (View Larger)

The writings of Roman grammarian, rhetorician and advocate, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, were

"cut to pieces in the Dark Ages. Any author may fall on hard times, when parchment is scarce and other texts are more in demand, but to Fronto belongs the unique distinction of surviving solely as the lower script in no fewer than three palimpsests, which range in date from about 350 to 475.

"The first preserves a few words from the end of his Gratiarum actio pro Cathaginiensibus. It is part of that remarkable manuscript Vatican, Pal. lat 24, which is a tissue of ancient codices, largely of classical authors and Italian in origin, which were reused in Italy to make up a copy of the Old Testament. The Fronto fragment (ff. 45 and 53, CLA I. 72) is written in rustic capitals of s. IV-V [4th to 5th centuries]; the text was discovered by Angelo Mai in 1820 and published by him in 1823.

"The extensive remains of Fronto's Correspondence are transmitted as the lower script of Milan, Abros. E. 147 sup. + Vatican lat 5750, written in an uncial hand of the later fifth century, presumably in Italy; it was rewritten in the seventh century, probably at Bobbio, where it was later housed, with a Latin translation of the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon. Both parts were discovered by Mai, the Ambrosian in 1815, the Vatican in 1819, and published in 1815 and 1823 respectively. The first, in particular, suffered disastrously from his heavy use of chemical reagents.

"It seemed, until 1956, that further gains to Fronto's text could come only from strenuous emendation and decipherment; but in that year Bernhard Bischoff pointed out that a third manuscript, published as early as 1750 and conjecturally ascribed to Fronto (then undiscovered) by Dom Tassin in the Nouveau traité de diplomatique, contained fragments of Epit. ad Verum 2.1 which actually overlap with the Milan palimpsest. This is one leaf of Paris lat 12161 (pp. 133-4,CLA v. 629) rewritten  probably at Corbie, the late seventh or early eight century with Jerome and Gennadius, De viris illustribus. The original script, a sixth century uncial, may perhaps belong to southern France, in which case we have what could be a remnant of the last flowering of rhetorical studies in Gaul" (Reynolds ed., Texts and Transmission [1983] 173-74).

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The Earliest of Two Surviving Examples of Codices Written Entirely in Roman Square Capitals, and the Earliest Manuscript with a Large Ornamented Initial Letter at the Beginning of Each Page Circa 350 CE

One of the four leaves of the Vergilius Augusteus that resides in the Vatican Library.(View Larger)

The Codex Augusteus of Virgil, or the Vergilius Augusteus, was once thought to have been created in the Age of Octavian, the first Roman Emperor, but was later estimated to have been written in the fourth century CE. This and the Codex Sangallensis, are the only surviving examples of ancient manuscripts written entirely in Square capitals, a style of writing that was extremely complex and time consuming, and most often reserved for display headings. The Codex Augusteus also contains the earliest surviving examples of large ornamented initial letters at the beginning of each page. 

Square capitals were generally reserved for display purposes, or for use in monumental epigraphic inscriptions (scriptura monumentalis). "The angular letter-forms, with their frequent changes of angle and their serifs, were difficult to achieve with the reed pen (calamus) hence the preference for more rounded book scripts" (Brown, A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 [1990] no. 1 and plate 1).

"According to Lowe, the Codex was almost certainly written in Italy. The script is the creation of the broad pen whose edge is held parallel to the base line; the position of the arm for which, according to the cut of the pen, gives thick perpendiculars and thin sub-strokes. It is a position, also, that requires to be maintained by a constant effort of the will if the letters to is to remain consistent throughout. Accordingly, when, as often, the o is tilted, it is probably against the intention of the scribe" (Morison, Politics and Script. . . . Barker ed. [1972] 49).

Only seven leaves of the manuscript survive, of which four are in the Vatican Library (Vat. Lat. 3256), and the remaining three in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Lat. fol. 416.) The manuscript was probably written in Italy. By the 15th century it was in St. Denis, Paris. The four leaves in the Vatican Library belonged to the jurist, humanist and bibliophile, Claude Dupuy. He gave two leaves to the humanist, historian and archaeologist Fulvio Orsini in 1574, and gave him the other two in 1575.  

Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores I (1934) no. 13.  Lowe, "Some facts about our Oldest Latin Manuscripts," Bieler (ed) E. A. Lowe. Palaeographical Papers 1907-1965 (1972) 189.

Stan Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance (2009) B3 (pp. 26-27, with excellent images).

(This entry was last revised on 08-15-2014.)


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The Most Widely Used Medieval Grammar Circa 350 CE

Around the year 350 Roman grammarian and teacher of rhetoric Aelius Donatus wrote the Latin grammar book, Ars grammaticaDonatus was the teacher of St. Jerome.

"His Ars grammatica, especially the section on the eight parts of speech, though possessing little claim to originality, and evidently based on the same authorities which were used by the grammarians Charisius and Diomedes, attained such popularity as a schoolbook that, in the Middle Ages, he became the eponym for a rudimentary treatise of any sort, called a donet. When books came to be printed in the 15th century, editions of the little book were multiplied to an enormous extent. It is also the only purely textual work to be printed in blockbook form (cut like a woodcut, not using movable type). It is in the form of an Ars Minor, which only treats of the parts of speech, and an Ars Major, which deals with grammar in general at greater length.

"Donatus was a proponent of an early system of punctuation, consisting of dots placed in three successively higher positions to indicate successively longer pauses, roughly equivalent to the modern comma, colon, and full stop. This system remained current through the seventh century, when a more refined system due to Isidore of Seville gained prominence" (Wikipedia article on Aelius Donatus, accessed 01-15-2011).

About 1454 an edition of the Ars minor by the fourth-century Roman grammarian Aelius Donatus was printed in Mainz in the type of the 36-line Bible (sometimes also called the DK-type). The year of printing is uncertain.

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One of the Earliest Treatises on Indian Medicine, Written on Birch Bark 350 CE – 550

Dated to the Gupta era, between the 4th and the 6th century CE, the Bower Manuscript, preserved at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, was written on birch bark in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit using the Late Brahmi script or Gupta script. The manuscript preserves one of the earliest treatises on Indian medicine (Ayurveda). The medical parts (I-III) may be based on similar types of medical writings antedating the composition of the saṃhitās of Charaka, Suśruta, and thus rank with the earliest surviving texts on Indian tradition medicine, or Ayurveda.

"The text is written on 51 pages of birch bark leaves of an oblong shape, in the form of those of an Indian pothī. The birch bark of the large portion of the manuscript is of a quality much inferior to that of the smaller portion. The hole for the passage of the binding string is placed about the middle of the left half of the leaves. This placement of the string hole and the oblong form of the leaves point to an imitation of palm leaf pothīs from Southern India by the scribes of Kucā [Kucha].

"The seven parts of the manuscript are written in an essentially identical script, the Gupta Brahmi script, which places the manuscript in the Gupta era (4th to 6th centuries). Hoernle placed the ms. in the 4th century on grounds of paleography, but palaeographical studies. . . present compelling evidence for a later date of about the first half of the 6th century.

"Hoernle distinguished four scribes who wrote parts I-III, part IV, parts V and VII and part VI, respectively. He identified the first and third of these as natives of India who had migrated to Kucā. To judge from the style of writing, the scribe of parts I - III originally came from the northern, the two scribes of parts V-VII from the southern part of the northern area of the Indian Gupta script. The writer of part IV may have been a native of Eastern Turkestan. All four writers must have been Buddhist monks, residing in a monastery near Kucā. The ultimate owner of the whole series of manuscripts, whose name appears to have been Yaśomitra, must have held a prominent position in that monastery, for the bundle of manuscripts was contained in the relic chamber of the memorial stūpa built in his honour" (Wikipedia article on Bower Manuscript, accessed 01-19-2013).

A. F. Rudolf Hoernle, The Bower Manuscript; Facsimile Leaves, Nagari Transcript, Romanised Transliteration and English Translation with Notes. Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing India,1893-1897. A Sanskrit Index was published in 1908, and a revised translation of the medical portions (I,II,and III) in 1909; the Introduction appeared in 1912. 

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The Earliest Dated Codex with Full-Page Illustrations 354 CE

Title page from the Chronography of 354. (View Larger)

The Chronography of 354, also known as the Calendar of 354, is an illuminated manuscript produced for a wealthy Roman Christian named Valentius for the year 354. It is the earliest dated codex with full page illustrations; however none of the original survived. It is thought that the original may have existed in the Carolingian period, when a number of copies were made, with or without illustrations. These were copied during the Renaissance.

♦ The Calender of 354 is signed by Furius Dionysius Filocalus, with the word "titulavit," as creator of the titles which "display great calligraphic mastery. Whether or not he also executed the drawings is unknown" (Alexander, Medieval Illuminators and their Methods of Work [1992] 4), but Furius Dionysius Filocalus is the first known name associated with the production of a specific book.

"The most complete and faithful copies of the illustrations are the pen drawings in a 17th century manuscript from the Barberini collection (Vatican Library, cod. Barberini lat. 2154.) This was carefully copied, under the supervision of the great antiquary Nicholas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, from a Carolingian copy, a Codex Luxemburgensis, which was itself lost in the 17th century. These drawings, although they are twice removed from the originals, show the variety of sources that the earliest illuminators used as models for manuscript illustration, including metalwork, frescoes, and floor mosaics. The Roman originals were probably fully painted miniatures.

"Various partial copies or adaptations survive from the Carolingian renaissance and Renaissance periods. Botticelli adapted a figure of the city of Treberis (Trier) who grasps a bound barbarian by the hair for his small panel, traditionally called Pallas and the Centaur.

"The Vatican Barberini manuscript, made in 1620 for Peiresc, who had the Carolingian Codex Luxemburgensis on long-term loan, is clearly the most faithful. After Peiresc's death in 1637 the manuscript disappeared. However some folios had already been lost from the Codex Luxemburgensis before Peiresc received it, and other copies have some of these. The suggestion of Carl Nordenfalk that the Codex Luxemburgensis copied by Peiresc was actually the Roman original has not been accepted. Peiresc himself thought the manuscript was seven or eight hundred years old when he had it, and, though Mabillon had not yet published his De re diplomatica (1681), the first systematic work of paleography, most scholars, following Schapiro, believe Peiresc would have been able to make a correct judgment on its age" (Wikipedia article on the Chronography of 354, accessed 11-25-2008).

In December 2013 a digital facsimile from the Codex Vaticanus Barberini latinus 2154 (=R1) as reproduced in Josef Strzygowski, Die Calenderbilder des Chronographen vom Jahre 354, Series: Jahrbuch des Kaiserlich Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts. vol. 1. Berlin:G. Reimer (1888), was available at this link. That website also included much valuable scholarly apparatus. A digital version of Strzygowski's complete work was available at this link.

The standard printed edition is Salzman, On Roman Time: The Codex-Calendar of 354 and the Rhythms of Urban Life in Late Antiquity (1990).

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The Obscure Origins and Meaning of the Term "Uncial" for Script Circa 375 CE

"The meaning of the term 'Uncial' is obscure. Jerome is said to have been the first to speak of 'litterae uncialibis', a phrase which has perhaps been too literally translated as 'inch-high letters'. No ancient example of Uncial, used as text, nor any other early book script, comes anywhere near that size. Bischoff (Latin Palaeography, Antiquity and the Middle Ages) believes that Mabillon (a 17th century scholar) mistakenly applied Jerome's 'uncialibus' to this one style of script, and the error has been perpetuated ever since. Leonard Boyle (Medieval Latin Palaeography) suggests that 'uncialibis' is perhaps a mistranslation of 'initialibis'" (Stan Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance [2009] 35).

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The Oldest Datable Uncial Manuscript, Probably Written in Hippo Regius, Africa 396 CE – 426 CE

Most of the earliest surviving Uncial manuscripts were written in Northern Africa. The oldest datable Uncial manuscript is a copy of Augustinus, Libri II ad Interrogata Simpliciani, etc. (St. Petersburg, Public Library Ms. Q. V. 1, 3), written between 396 and 426 CE probably in Hippo Regius , the ancient name for the city of Annaba, Algeria. This was described by E. A. Lowe, in Codices Latini Antiquiores XI (1966) no. 1613, and the Supplement  to C.L.A. (1971) p. ix, and plate 3A. Lowe wrote:

"Written probably in Africa, to judge by the script of one of the two hands though the other is manifestly trained in the Italian manner. African origin is supported by W. M. Green's brilliant hypothesis that the volume was produced at Hippo in the author's early episcopacy. This renders it one of the most precious in the entire C.L.A. series. The manuscript belonged to Corbie where it is mentioned in several catalogues. Came to Saint Germain-des-Prés in 1638, where it bore the number 254. Acquired by Peter Dubrowsky [Dubrovsky] in 1791 and by the Imperial Library in 1805."

"It has been suggested that the Uncial script was deliverately devised, at the time when Constantine was Emperor (AD 306-337), as a specifically Christian bookhand to replace the Square and Rustic capitals used for 'pagan' classics. However, there are some ancient scripts and inscriptions with certain Uncial characteristics, which clearly pre-date the time of Constantine. The Timgad inscription of the 2nd or 3rd century, also has letters which are very similar to Uncial forms (see Stanley Morison, Politics and Script, page 63).

"Furthermore, the existence of some early Christian texts written in Rustics, like the fragment of the Gospel of John (Aberdeen, University Library, Papyrus 2a) and the Epistle to the Ephesians (Florence, Ms. Laur. P./S. 1, 1306), as well as at least one 'pagan' author, Cicero, written in the 4th century in Uncials (Vatican, Ms. Lat. 5757), cast doubt on this common assertion" (Stan Knight, Historical Scripts fron Classical Times to the Renaissance [2009] B6 (p. 33)

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The Oldest Manuscript Collection Surviving in Pakistan and India Circa 400 CE – 600

Discovered in a wooden box in a circular chamber inside a Buddhist stupa by cattle grazers in 1931, the Gilgit manuscripts may be the earliest surviving Buddhist documents. They were named after the city of Gilgit, now part of Pakistan, in which they were discovered. Gilgit was an important city on the Silk Road, along which Buddhism was spread from South Asia to the rest of Asia.

A corpus of many Buddhist texts such as four sutras from the Buddhist canon, including the famous Lotus Sutra, the manuscripts survived because they were written on the bark of the bhoj (birch) tree which does not decay, and were kept in the freezing sub-zero temperatures of the Gilgit region. Theyere were writein the Buddhist form of Sanskrit in the Śāradā or Sharada script.

The most famous of the Gilgit manuscripts, the Gilgit Lotus Sutra is preserved in the National Archives of India in Delhi. Known as the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra – or the teachings of the white lotus and sun – the sutra is the basis of the Tiantai and Nichiren schools of Buddhism. In 2012 a facsimile edition of it was published by by the National Archives jointly with the Institute of Oriental Philosophy and Soka Gakkai, a Japan-based non-governmental organization. 

"In August 1938, seven years after the discovery of the texts, the archaeologist Madhusudan Kaul Shastri led a systematic excavation of the Naupur site and discovered another larger chamber at the base of the structure. The chamber contained another set of the Gilgit Manuscripts along with votive objects and probably Buddhist cult bronzes.

"According to renowned scholar Karl Jettmar, inscriptions on these bronzes “reveal that they were produced and dedicated due to the generosity and the religious zeal of a Patola Shahi”. The Patola Shahis, also known as Palola Shahis, were the rulers of Gilgit and Baltistan from the late sixth to the early eighth centuries AD.

"Shortly after, Kaul Shastri and his team outlined the specifications of the second group of manuscripts and other finds from the site including the hand painted covers of two manuscripts.

"In the third phase, the well-known Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci secured another small group of the manuscripts in 1956. Obtaining them from a street vendor in Rawalpindi, he presented them to the Karachi museum.

"Roughly 60 manuscripts and 17 Avadnas emerging from Naupur are of unmatched significance in Buddhist studies. These are the oldest surviving collection of religious texts in the subcontinent. Based on the paleographical evidence, scholars agree that local Buddhist devotees compiled these texts between the fifth and sixth century AD. With the exception of only a few scripts, all the manuscripts were written on birch bark in Buddhist hybrid Sanskrit language in the Gupta Brahmi and post-Gupta Brahmi script.

"The birch bark that does not decay or decompose and the cool climate of the area helped the manuscripts survive till the day of their discovery in the 20th century. The Gilgit Manuscripts deciphered thus far cover a wide range of subjects such as religion, religious rituals, philosophy, iconometry, monastic discipline, folk tales, medicine and culinary art.

"The manuscripts contain sutras from the Buddhist canon, the Samghata Sutra, Samadhiraja Sutra, Saddharma Pundarika Sutraand Bhaisajyaguru Sutra.The Samadhiraja Sutra is one of the important Mahayana canonical texts, which are collectively called Navadharma. The Saddharma Pundarika Sutrapopularly known as Lotus Sutra, figures prominently in the Gilgit Manuscripts and scholars agree it was the most venerated sutra of the Buddhists from the Gilgit area" (http://tns.thenews.com.pk/gilgit-manuscripts-in-naupur/#.VDwu5NR4ovE, accessed 10-17-2014).

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The Oldest Surviving Consular Diptych 406 CE

The mentioned diptych, portraying Emperor Honorius in both panels.

The oldest surviving diptych that can be called a consular diptych was commissioned by Anicius Petronius Probus, consul in the western empire in 406. It is the only consular diptych to bear the portrait of the emperor (Honorius in this instance, to whom the diptych is dedicated in an inscription full of humility, with Probus calling himself the emperor's "famulus" or slave) rather than a portrait of the consul. It is preserved in the cathedral treasury at Aosta.

Honorius was Emperor of the Western Roman Empire from 393 until his death in 423. Ascending to the throne at the age of only ten, Honorius was an especially weak military leader. In this diptych, however, he is portrayed in elaborate armor, holding an orb surmounted by a Victory, and a standard with the Latin words translated as "In the name of Christ, may you always be victorious." In actuality Honorius never led his troops in battle. At his death he left an empire on the verge of collapse.

A pair of linked panels, generally in ivory, wood or metal with rich sculpted decoration,  a diptych could function as a wax tablet for writing. More specifically a consular diptych was also intended as a deluxe commemorative object, commissioned by a consul ordinarius, and distributed to reward those who had supported his candidacy, and to mark his entry to that post.

"The chronology of such diptychs is clearly defined, with their beginnings marked by a decision by Theodosius I in 384 to reserve their use to consuls alone, except by an extraordinary imperial dispensation, and their end marked by the consulship's disappearance under the reign of Justinian in 541. Even so, great aristocrats and imperial civil-servants bypassed Theodosius's ban and produced diptychs to celebrate less important posts that the consulship - Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, for example, distributed some to commemorate his son's quaestorian then praetorian games in 393 and 401 respectively (Wikipedia article on consular diptych, accessed 11-19-2010).

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One of the Two Surviving Ancient Codices Written Entirely in Square Capitals Circa 450 CE

Codex Sangallensis 1394, containing pp. 7-48 of the Works of Virgil (Vergil) was written in Italy during the fifth century. With the Codex Augusteus of Virgil, this is one of only two surviving ancient codices writen entirely in Square capitals, a laborious and time-consuming style of writing, probably avoided by most scribes except for display headings. The twelve leaves of the Codex Sangallensis 1394 that survive are badly damaged, and most are severely cropped.

In August 2014 a digital facsimile was available from the St. Gallen Stiftbibliothek at this link.

Stan Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance (2009) B4 (pp. 28-29).

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"A Bibliography of Works on Medieval Communication" 476 CE – 1500

In November 2014 I obtained a copy of A Bibliography of Works on Medieval Communication by Marco Mostert of the University of Utrecht, published by Brepols in Turnhout, Belgium in 2012. This bibliography includes 6,843 publications under sixteen headings— far more publications on many more topics than I would have guessed were in existence. In due time, as I work through selected studies listed in this bibliography, entries citing it will undoubtedly appear in HistoryofInformation.com. As a bibliographer myself I am particularly interested in the ways that information is organized. Therefore I have quoted the entire Contents organizational scheme of the book below:

Table of Contents



How to Use This Bibliography

Chapter 1. Introductions

1.1 Theory of Literacy and (Written) Communication
1.2 Anthropological and Sociological Contributions to the Debate
1.3 Psychological Contributions to the Debate
1.4 Linguistic Contributions to the Debate
1.5 Literacy and (Written) Communication (in the Middle Ages)
1.5.1 The Münster School
1.5.2 The Freiburg School

Chapter 2. Surveys of the Introduction and Development of Written Culture

2.1 From Antiquity to the Present
2.2 Antiquity
2.2.1 Biblical Antiquity and Early Christianity
2.2.2 Classical Antiquity
2.2.3 Greek Antiquity
2.2.4 Roman Antiquity
2.2.5 Late Antiquity
2.3 Byzantium
2.4 The Middle Ages
2.4.1 Early Middle Ages
2.4.2 Later Middle Ages
2.5 Italy
2.5.1 Italy in the Early Middle Ages
2.5.2 Italy in the Later Middle Ages
2.6 Iberian Peninsula
2.7 France
2.8 Germany
2.8.1 Germany in the Early Middle Ages
2.8.2 Germany in the Later Middle Ages
2.9 Low Countries
2.10 England
2.10.1 England in the Early Middle Ages
2.10.2 England in the Later Middle Ages
2.11 Ireland and the ‘Celtic Fringe’
2.12 Scandinavia
12.13 The Eastern Baltic Shores
2.14 East Central and Eastern Europe
2.14.1 East Central Europe: Bohemia, Hungary and Poland
2.14.2 The Balkans (without Byzantium)
2.14.3 Eastern Europe: The Russias
2.15 Jews
2.16 The Islamic World
2.17 After the Middle Ages

Chapter 3. Forms of Non-Verbal Communication

3.1 Middle Ages – General
3.2 Symbolic Spaces, Public and Private
3.3 The Senses
3.3.1 Smells
3.3.2 Flavours
3.4 Colours
3.5 Visual Images
3.5.1 Visual Images in Antiquity
3.5.2 Visual Images in Byzantium
3.5.3 Visual Images in the Middle Ages Visual Images in the Early Middle Ages Visual Images in the Later Middle Ages
3.5.4 Visual Images after the Middle Ages
3.6 Visual Images and Texts
3.6.1 General Visual Images and the Illiterate
3.6.2 Visual Images and Texts in Antiquity
3.6.3 Visual Images and Texts in Byzantium
3.6.4 Visual Images and Texts in Islam
3.6.5 Visual Images and Texts in the Middle Ages Visual Images and Texts in the Early Middle Ages Visual Images and Texts in the Later Middle Ages
3.6.6 Visual Images and Texts after the Middle Ages
3.7 Sound and Noise
3.7.1 Music
3.8 The Human Body
3.9 Gestures
3.9.1 Gestures from Antiquity to the Present
3.9.2 Gestures in Antiquity
3.9.3 Gestures in Byzantium
3.9.4 Gestures in the Middle Ages Gestures in the Early Middle Ages Gestures in the Later Middle Ages
3.9.5 Gestures after the Middle Ages
3.10 Sign Language
3.11 Dance
3.12 Clothes
3.13 Symbolic Objects
3.14 Laughter

Chapter 4. Ritual

4.1 Theory of Ritual
4.2 (Ritualised) Emotions
4.3 Ritual – General Surveys
4.4 Ritual in the Middle Ages
4.5 Ritual in Early Modern Europe
4.6 Forms of Ritual
4.6.1 Forms of Ritual: Feasts
4.6.2 Forms of Ritual: Meals and Banquets
4.6.3 Forms of Ritual: (Table) Manners
4.7 Representation, Political Ritual and Ceremony
4.7.1 Representation
4.7.2 The Notion of Political Ritual
4.7.3 Political Ritual – General Surveys
4.7.4 Political Ritual in Antiquity
4.7.5 Political Ritual in the Middle Ages Political Ritual in Early Medieval Europe Political Ritual in Later Medieval Europe
4.7.6 Rituals of Rule: Acclamations, Coronations and Investitures
4.7.7 Rituals of Rule: Festive Entries
4.7.8 Rituals of Rule: The Meeting of Rulers
4.7.9 Rituals of Rule: Assemblies, Councils and Counsel
4.7.10 Rituals of Rule: The Lit de Justice
4.7.11 Rituals of Rule: Oaths, Pacts and Peace-Making
4.7.12 Rituals of Rule: On The Battlefield
4.7.13 Rituals of Rule: Staged Emotions
4.7.14 Rituals of Rule: Weddings
4.7.15 Rituals of Rule: Funerals
4.7.16 Rituals of Rule: The Papacy
4.7.17 Rituals of Rule: The Aristocracy
4.7.18 Rituals of Rule: The Towns
4.8 Rituals in Literature

Chapter 5. Language

5.1 Thinking about Language
5.2 Language in Antiquity
5.3 The Problem of Latin
5.3.1 Latin: General
5.3.2 Christian and Late Latin
5.3.3 Latin as Mother Tongue: From Latin to Romance
5.3.4 Latin as Father Tongue: Medieval Latin
5.3.5 Neo-Latin
5.4 The Problem of the Vernaculars
5.5 The Problem of Translation
5.6 Languages in Europe
5.6.1 Languages in the Italian Peninsula
5.6.2 Languages in the Iberian Peninsula
5.6.3 Languages in France
5.6.4 Languages in Switzerland
5.6.5 Languages in the German-speaking World
5.6.6 Languages in the Low Countries
5.6.7 Languages in the British Isles: Generalities Languages in the British Isles: England Languages in the British Isles: Scotland Languages in the British Isles: The ‘Celtic Fringe’ in the British Isles: Ireland in the British Isles: Wales
5.6.8 Languages in Scandinavia
5.6.9 Languages on the Eastern Shores of the Baltic
5.6.10 Languages in East Central and Eastern Europe: Generalities Languages in East Central Europe: Bohemia, Poland and Hungary Languages in Eastern Europe: The Russias
5.6.11 Languages in South Eastern Europe (Including Byzantium)
5.6.12 Languages in the Middle East
5.7 Language as a Means of Distinction
5.8 Forms of Oral Communication
5.8.1 Forms of Oral Communication: Silence
5.8.2 Forms of Oral Communication: Battles of Words
5.8.3 Forms of Oral Communication: Proverbs
5.8.4 Forms of Oral Communication: Riddles
5.8.5 Forms of Oral Communication: Gossip
5.8.6 Forms of Oral Communication: Addressing the Ruler
5.8.7 Forms of Oral Communication: Law and Justice
5.8.8 Forms of Oral Communication: Administration
5.8.9 Forms of Oral Communication: Blasphemy, Curses and Other Verbal Injuries
5.8.10 Forms of Oral Communication: Parliamentary Rhetoric
5.8.11 Forms of Oral Communication: Battlefield Language
5.8.12 Forms of Oral Communication: Shouting

Chapter 6. Oral and Written Memory

6.1 Classical Antiquity
6.2 Middle Ages
6.3 “Lieux de Mémoire”
6.4 The Past in Primarily Oral Societies
6.5 Oral Tradition
6.5.1 Oral Tradition in Antiquity
6.5.2 Oral Tradition in the Middle Ages Oral Tradition in the Early Middle Ages Oral Tradition in the Later Middle Ages
6.5.3 Oral Tradition in Literary Texts
6.5.4 Oral Tradition in Historiography

Chapter 7. Teaching, Mainly of Reading and Writing

7.1 Teaching in Antiquity
7.2 Teaching in the Middle Ages
7.2.1 Teaching in the Early Middle Ages
7.2.2 Teaching in the Later Middle Ages
7.2.3 The Medieval University
7.3 Teaching in Islam
7.4 Jewish Education

Chapter 8. Production and Use of Written Texts

8.1 Script and Script Forms
8.2 Runes, Inscriptions, Graffiti and Wax Tablets
8.3 Book Production and Use
8.3.1 Book Production in Antiquity, Byzantium and the Islamic World
8.3.2 Book Production in the Middle Ages Book Production in the Early Middle Ages Book Production in the Later Middle Ages
8.4 Producing Charters and Archival Documents
8.5 Reading and the Reception of Texts
8.5.1 Reading in Antiquity
8.5.2 Reading in Byzantium
8.5.3 Reading in the Middle Ages Reading in the Early Middle Ages Reading in the Later Middle Ages
8.5.4 Reading in Early Modern Times
8.5.5 Reading, Lay-out, Manuscript Research and Editorial Techniques
8.6 The Printed Word

Chapter 9. The Preservation and Wilful Destruction of Written Texts

Chapter 10. Correspondence, Messengers and the Postal System

10.1 Messengers and Ambassadors

Chapter 11. Mandarin Literacy

Chapter 12. The Use of Writing by Different Social Groups

12.1 Clergy and Laymen
12.1.1 Secular Clergy
12.1.2 Regular Clergy
12.2 Aristocrats
12.3 Peasants
12.4 Town Dwellers
12.5 Women
12.5.1 Women Before the Middle Ages
12.5.2 Women in the Middle Ages
12.5.3 Women in the Early Middle Ages
12.5.4 Women in the Later Middle Ages
12.5.5 Religious Women
12.5.6 Lay Women: Queens and Noblewomen
12.5.7 Lay Women: Town Dwellers

Chapter 13. Uses of Writing in Government, Management and Trade

13.1 Legislation and Law
13.2 Charters
13.3 Jurisdiction and Dispute Settlement
13.4 Government
13.5 Notaries Public and Their Work
13.6 Management
13.7 Trade

Chapter 14. Literature

14.1 ‘Oral’ Literature
14.2 (Oral) Epic
14.3 The Composition of (Mainly) Oral Literature
14.4 Performance
14.5 The Bible as Literature
14.6 Classical Literature
14.6.1 Classical Greek Literature
14.6.2 Classical Latin Literature
14.6.3 Late Antique Literature
14.7 Byzantine Literature
14.8 Medieval Literature
14.8.1 Medieval Latin Literature
14.8.2 Literature in the Italian Peninsula
14.8.3 Literature in the Iberian Peninsula
14.8.4 Literature in France
14.8.5 Literature in the German-Speaking World
14.8.6 Literature in the Low Countries
14.7.9 Literature in the British Isles Literature in the British Isles: England in the Early Middle Ages Literature in the British Isles: England in the Later Middle Ages Literature in the British Isles: The ‘Celtic Fringe’
14.7.10 Literature in Scandinavia
14.7.11 Literature in East Central and Eastern Europe
14.7.12 Literature in the (mainly Arabic) Middle East
14.8 Drama, Theatre, Feast and Spectacle

Chapter 15. Religion and Writing

15.1 Before the Middle Ages and Generalities
15.2 Middle Ages
15.3 Mission
15.4 Liturgy
15.5 Sermons and Preaching
15.6 Hagiography
15.7 Visions, Dreams and Prophecy
15.8 The Magic of the Written Word

Chapter 16. The Symbolism of the Book

Subject Index

Index of Modern Authors and Editors

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500 CE – 600

The Longevity of Wax Tablets for Recording Written Information Circa 500 CE – 1450

"Until quite late in the Middle Ages virtually everyone who learned to write did so on a wax tablet, and virtually everyone who made a draft, of letter or lyric, treatise or document, or a running account at the fishmonger's, did so on a wax tablet. The wax tablet, as support for the written word, had a longer uninterrupted association with literate Western civilization than either parchment or paper, and a more intimate relationship with literary creation. . . ." (Richard Rouse and Mary Rouse, "The Vocabulary of Wax Tablets," Bound Fast With Letters. Medieval Writers and Texts [2013] 13).

In their discussion of wax tablets tied together, in the form of two tablets tied together called diptychs, or multiple tablets tied together, known as polyptychs, typically referred to by the Romans as codices, the Rouses mentioned that the largest number of recorded tablets tied together was eight:

"The most complex of which we have record is the eight-part tablet, a special gift, celebrated in verse by its owner, the eleventh century French poet Baudri: 'You [his polytych] contain eight tablets' (in vobis  . . .sunt octo tabelle') (Rouse & Rouse, op. cit., 16)

In May 2014 I came across a reference to a book by the eighteenth century Italian physician, naturalist, and writer Antonio Cocchi concerning a manuscript written on fourteen wax tablets. Cocchi's work, Lettera Critica Sopra un Manoscritto in Cera, published in Firenze in 1746, provided an analysis of the contents of the 14 wax tablets, which included a long account of a journey undertaken by Philippe IV of France (Philippe le Bel). Cocchi wrote the work in the form of a letter to Pompeo Neri. At the end of his book he provided a letterpress table, which was in part a facsimile of the wax tablet manuscript.

Whether any of the wax tablets described by Cocchi were tied together in the form of a codex, or codices, was unclear. However, the title of the work, drawing attention to the wax tablet format of the manuscript, confirms that medieval wax tablets had become rare by the eighteenth century. Whether the tablets survived into the 21st century was unknown.


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St. Benedict Founds the Abbey at Monte Cassino and Later Formulates his Rule 529

St. Benedict. (Click to view larger.)

In 529 Benedict of Nursia, better known as St. Benedict (San Benedetto da Norcia), founded the Abbey of Monte Cassino in Compania, Italy. 

Benedict's Rule, formulated near the end of his life (547), based the foundations of monastic life on prayer, study, and the assistance of the sick. Benedict's rule was influenced by the rule of John Cassian who founded the first monasteries in Europe near Marseille, southern Gaul, about 415 CE.

♦ "Every monastery, therefore, was obliged to have a doctor to attend patients and a separate place in the cloister where the sick could be treated. It thus became necessary for one, at least, of the monks to collect scientific material, to study it and to hand on his knowledge to those who would, in time, take his place. In this way was started that practical teaching which was transmitted by word of mouth from generation to generation to the great advantage of the sick breathren of the monastery. As many codices of Latin and Greek learning as could be found were collected, and translations and extracts made for the use of those who, either because their studies had been only elementary or because they lacked the time,  were incapable of reading their authors in the original text.

"What was the position of the monkish doctor in these religious colonies? It is true that in Benedictine monasteries the doctor was not granted a well-defined position by the monastic rule, like the Prior, the nurse (a man, of course—with a post which was merely administrative), the chaplain, the cellarer or the librarian. The title of medicus was, therefore, not official; its holder had no disciplinary power, and it could not directly procure him any privileges. It was a mere name given to monks who, as a result of their studies, showed some special capacity for the art of healing. But, without having any official status among the dignitaries of the monastery, they yet had a high moral position in the community. In official monastic documents they signed after those monks who were invested with the highest monastic rank. Their elevated moral position is quite clear from the important missions entrusted to thrm by great personages of the day, missions of trust which would not have been given to individuals who were not held in considerable esteem. . . .

"The doctor treated his patients, prescribed the medicaments and prepared them himself, using those which he kept in the armarium pigmentorum. The herb garden, which existed in every monastery, allowed him to have at hand the medicinal plants he needed. The students whom he gathered round him in the monastery helped him to treat the patients and prepared the medicines. The work was done in the Infirmary, a place varying in size with the importance of the monastery, and set apart from the dormitory and the refectory of the monks themselves. Into the Infirmary were taken not only sick monks but also gentlemen, townspeople, and even labourers who applied for admission. The monastic doctor, besides his practice, had also to undertake the copying of medical texts. . . . In each great Benedictine monastery a real studium was formed, from which doctors were sent to the minor centres. The work of the doctor, however, was not limited by the monastery walls. At that time, when civilian medicine was generally represented by bone-setters and travelling quacks, the services of the monastery doctor were asked of the Prior whenever a person of importance or a member of his family fell ill in the neighbourhood. Permission was given freely and lasted during the whole treatment. The monastic doctor was never sent away on duty unless accompanied by another monk or by one of his pupils. Owing to his vow of poverty, he himself could receive no reward for his services, but splendid donations in lands, money or kind were made by great lords who willingly gave such gifts pro recuperata valetudine" (Capparoni, "Magistri Salernitani Nondum Cogniti". A Contribution to the History of the Medical School of Salerno [1923] 3-5).

Concerning books and study Benedict's rule stated in its 48th chapter, Of Daily Manual Labor:

"Idleness is the enemy of the soul; hence brethren ought, at certain seasons, to occupy themselves with manual labour, and again at certain hours, with holy reading. . . .

"Between Easter and the calends of October let them apply themselves to reading from the fourth hour till near the sixth hour.

"From the calends of October to the beginning of Lent let them apply themselves to reading until the second hour. . . . During Lent, let them apply themselves to reading from morning until the end of the third hour. . . and, in these days of Lent, let them receive a book apiece from the library, and read it straight through. These books are to be given out at the beginning of Lent" (Clark, The Care of Books [1902] 56). 

Benedict's Rule mentioned a library without mentioning the scriptorium that would later become an integral part of monastic life.

♦ Benedictine scriptoria, where the copying of texts not only provided materials needed in the routines of the community and served as work for hands and minds otherwise idle, also produced a desirable product that could be sold. Early commentaries on the Benedictine rule suggest that manuscript copying was a common occupation of at least some Benedictine communities. Montalembert drew attention to the 6th-century rule of St Ferreol that regarded transcription as the equivalent of manual labor since it charges that the monk "who does not turn up the earth with the plow ought to write the parchment with his fingers" (Wikipedia article on Scriptorium, accessed 02-22-2009).

"Benedictine scriptoria, and with them libraries, became active not in the time of St. Benedict himself, but under the impulse of Irish (and later English) monks on the continent in the seventh and eighth centuries. The influence of the Anglo-Saxon missionaries, principally the Wessex-born Boniface and his allies and helpers, was especially strong in Germany, leading to the foundation of episcopal centers such as Mainz and Würzburg, and of monasteries that were to become famous for their libraries such as Fulda (744) and Hersfeld (770). The Anglo-Saxons brought with them a script and books from the well-stocked English libraries. In the course of time the preparation (and even sale) as well as consumption of books became a characteristic aspect of continental monastic life and the library a central part of the monastery" (M. Davies, "Medieval Libraries" in Stam (ed) The International Dictionary of Library History I [2001] 105).

•The image is a portrait of Benedict  from a fresco in the cloister of San Marco in Florence.

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Among the Earliest Surviving European Papyrus Codices Circa 550

A color plate from Bordier's paleographic study comparing the two separated portions of one of hte earliest suriviving European papyrus codices.

Though the damp European climate was not conducive to the preservation of papyrus, papyrus was used for writing in Europe as late as the 11th century.

Among the earliest surviving European papyrus codices is a copy of the writings of Saint Augustine, written in uncial script at Luxeuil and now divided between the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Paris no. 664 du fonds St-Germain latin or no. 11641) and the Bibliothèque de Genève. Interleaved parchment leaves protect the middle and the outside of the gatherings. These may have contributed to its survival.

The codex was described by Henri Bordier in "Restitution d'un manuscrit du sixième siècle mi-parti entre Paris et Genève contenant des lettres et des sermons de Saint Augustin," Etudes paléographiques et historiques sur des papyrus du VIme siecle en partie inedits refermant des homelies de Saint Avit et des ecrits de Saint Augustin (1866) 107-53, with 1 color plate comparing the two separated portions. 

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The Codex Zacynthius: The Oldest Codex That Has Both Text and Commentary in Uncial Script Circa 550

The Codex Zacynthius, containing chapters 1:1-11:33 of the Gospel of Luke in Greek, was written in the sixth century, or possibly the seventh century, in an unknown location. The 176 leaf manuscript was palimpsested in the 12th of 13th century, and overwritten with weekday Gospel lessons. Its late Alexandrian text-type undertext, discovered as late as 1861, was written by two scribes in a single column in uncial script— a style very similar to that of the Rossano Gospels. The undertext is surrounded on three sides by a marginal commentary in a different, smaller uncial script; the codex is the oldest surviving manuscript incorporating this feature.  

The early history of the codex is unknown. In its present sixteenth century Greek style goatskin binding it was presented to the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1821 by the General and abolitionist Colin Macaulay, as a gift from Prince Comuto of Zakynthos

The undertext of the codex was discovered, deciphered, transcribed, and edited by English bible scholar and theologian Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, who published it in 1861 as Codex Zacynthius. Greek Palimpsest Fragments of the Gospel of Saint Luke, Obtained in the Island of Zante, by the Late General Colin Macaulay, and Now in the Library of the British and Foreign Bible Society. In his book Tregelles included one page of typographical facsimile showing the commentary in small type. He did not decipher the small Patristic writing, and doubted that it could be read without chemical restoration. For the main Greek text Tregelles used types originally cast for printing the Codex Alexandrinus, which only approximately represented the shape of the letters of the codex. 

"The commentary is a catena of quotations of nine church fathers: OrigenEusebiusTitus of Bostra, Basil, Isidore of PelusiumCyril of Alexandria, Sever from Antioch, Victor from Antioch, and Chrysostom. The commentary surrounds the single-column text of Luke on three sides. Patristic text is written in small uncial letters. Most of the quotations are those of Ciril of Alexandria (93 scholia); next comes Titus of Bostra (45 scholia). The commentary was written in a different kind of uncial script than the biblical text" (Wikipedia article on Codex Zacynthius, accessed 01-07-2014).

In 1984 the British Foreign and Bible Society, which owned the manuscript, placed the codex, and in 1985 their historical library on deposit with Cambridge University Library. On September 16, 2013 the society announced that it would sell the Codex Zacynthius as part of a fund raising campaign for a new visitor center in a deconsecrated church in North Wales. It offered Cambridge University the right of first refusal to purchase the manuscript at the price of £1.1m until February 2014. Cambridge University's press release, issued as part of its fund raising campaign, contained several fine images and useful commentary on the manuscript. In January 2014 it was available at this link. On April 6, 2014 the deadline for Cambridge to acquire the codex was extended to August 2014.

(This entry was last revised on 04-08-2014.)

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One of the Oldest Surviving Illuminated Manuscripts of the New Testament Circa 555

An illumination of Christ found in the Rossano Gospels. (Click to view larger.)

The Rossano Gospels, preserved in the Cathedral of Rossano (Calabria), Southern Italy, were written following the reconquest of the Italian peninsula from the Ostrogoths by the Byzantine Empire, after a war which began in 535 and ended decisively in 553. The codex includes the earliest surviving evangelist portrait, showing Mark writing on a scroll.

"Also known as Codex purpureus Rossanensis due to the reddish (purpureus in Latin) appearance of its pages, the codex is one of the oldest surviving illuminated manuscripts of the New Testament. The now incomplete codex has the text of the Gospel of Matthew and the majority of the Gospel of Mark, with only one lucanae (Mark 16:14-20). A second volume is apparently missing. Like the Vienna Genesis and the Sinope Gospels, the Rossano Gospels are written in silver ink on purple dyed parchment. The large (300 mm by 250 mm) book has text written in a 215 mm square block with two columns of twenty lines each. There is a prefatory cycle of illustrations which are also on purple dyed parchment.

"The codex was discovered in 1879 in the Italian city Rossano by Oskar von Gebhardt and Adolf Harnack in cathedra Santa Maria Achiropita.

"The text of the Codex is generally Byzantine text-type in close relationship to the Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus. The Rossano Gospels, along with manuscripts N, O, and Φ, belong to the group of the Purple Uncials (or purple codices). Aland placed all four manuscripts of the group (the Purple Uncials) in Category V" (Wikipedia article on Rossano Gospels, accessed 01-02-2010).

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"Source Z" for the Latin New Testament Circa 575 – 599

A canon table from Harley 1775, from the British Library. (View Larger)

British Library, Harley 1775, a mixture of the Vulgate and Old Latin translation of the Gospels, dating from the final quarter of the sixth century, is called "source Z" in critical studies of the Latin New Testament. In the 17th century the manuscript was owned by Jules Cardinal Mazarin. In the early 18th century it was in the Bibliothèque Royale, ancestor of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, from which it was stolen along with several other manuscripts in 1707 by the renegade priest and adventurer, Jean Aymon. Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford, purchased the manuscript in Holland. In 1753 the widow of Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford and their daughter, sold the manuscript to Parliament as part of the Harleian collection, which became one the founding collections of the British Museum, and later of the British Library.

The manuscript is written in Uncial (Littera Uncialis).

"The term 'Uncial' has been thought (perhaps mistakenly) to have been coined in reference to letters an inch high and has been ascribed,probably aporcryphally, to St. Jerome, whose reference to the script and its 'luxury' status are, in fact, somewhat disparaging. Any such remark need not to have referred to the script which we now know as Uncial. There is no word division, the text being written in  the scriptura continua of Antiquity and set out, or punctuated, per cola et commata (i.e. the length of lines primarily indicating where pauses occur and serving to clarify the sense" (Brown, A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 [1990] no. 5 and plate 5).

In February 2014 a digital facsimile was available from the British Library at this link.

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The Monastery and Library at Luxeuil is Founded and Subsequently Sacked, Several Times 585 – 590

Saint Columbanus.

Between 585 and 590 the monk St. Columbanus from Bangor in Ireland founded an abbey on the ruins of a Gallo-Roman settlement at Luxeuil. His name was Columban in Irish, meaning "white dove;" he should not be confused with St. Columba, who founded the monastary on the island of Iona.

Columban (Columbanus) brought manuscripts from Ireland to found the abbey library at Luxeuil. Because of the treasures it held, this Celtish monastery was sacked by Vandals in 731, and after it was rebuilt it was devastated by Normans in the ninth century, and was sacked several times thereafter.

"The output of this house over the sixth to eighth centuries furnishes not only the msost advanced writing of the period but manuscripts of the highest liturgical importance. The finest of these are constructed and articulated with originality and care. They effectively illustrate the momentous change that was to end the long period during which Latin Uncial was the dominant script for such books" (Morison, Politics and Script. . . . Barker ed. [1972] 112).

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A Manuscript Probably Written in Pope Gregory's Scriptorium 590 – 604

The beginning of Regula pastoralis. The first three lines, in colored ink, have run or faded. (View Larger)

A late 6th century or very early 7th century illuminated manuscript of the Regula pastoralis or  Pastoral Care by Pope Gregory I, was probably written in Rome in Gregory's scriptorium, and contains his final revised text.

Bernhard Bischoff noted that two of the corrections in the manuscript are thought to be in Gregory's own hand. The manuscript also contains very early decorated initials in red, green, and yellow penwork.

The manuscript is preserved in the  Bibliothèque Municipale, Troyes, (MS 504). Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and Middle Ages (1990) 190 and note 2.

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A Volume Brought by St. Augustine to England in 597 597

Folio 129v of the St. Augustine Gospels, depicting Luke. (View Larger)

The St. Augustine Gospels, an illuminated Gospel Book written in a sixth-century Italian uncial hand, has traditionally been considered one of the volumes brought by St. Augustine from Rome to Canterbury, England in 597. The manuscript, from the library of Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker, is preserved in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. It is characterized by the Parker Library website as the "oldest illustrated Latin gospel book now in existence." Assuming that it travelled to England with Augustine in 597, the manuscript has been in England longer than any other book. It contains corrections to the text in an insular hand of the late 7th or early 8th century, which would confirm the presence of the manuscript in England.

"It was certainly at St. Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury in the 11th century, when documents concerning the Abbey were copied into it. The manuscript was given to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge by Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury. It is still produced for the enthronements of new Archbishops of Canterbury."

"The manuscript once contained evangelist portraits for all four Evangelists. However. only the portrait for Luke is still extant (Folio 129v). A full page miniature on folio 125r prior to Luke contains twelve narrative scenes from the Passion" (Wikipedia article on the St. Augustine Gospels, accessed 11-25-2008)

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600 – 700

The Springmount Bog Wax Tablets Circa 600

Tablet 3v of the Springmount Bog Tablets. (National Museum. Dublin, 1914: 2) (View Larger)

Probably the oldest examples of Latin writing from Ireland are the Springmount Bog tablets — wax tablets, on which are inscribed the Vulgate text of Psalms 30-32, found in a bog in County Antrim, Ireland, in the 20th century. They are preserved in the National Museum of Ireland.  

"The tablets are c. 75 x 210 mm, c. 7 mm thick, and appear to have been lashed together as a group of six, waxed sides together" (Stevenson, "Literarcy in Ireland: the evidence of the Patrick dossier in the Bookf Armagh," IN: McKitterick (ed) The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe [1990] 20).

"These are an unusual survival, given the climatic conditions of northern Europe; they were preserved owing to loss in a peat bog, and they convey graphically the obligation of the priest to be ‘psalteratus’ – to have memorised and be able to recite the Psalms, in the tradition of the Judaic priesthood – and recall exhortations to ordinands to spend whatever time possible learning them, even when travelling (as the person studying these extracts may have been)" (Michelle P. Brown, Preaching with the Pen: the Contribution of Insular Scribes to the Transmission of Sacred Text, from the 6th to 9th Centuries [2004]).

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During the Middle Ages Wax Tablets Are Widely Used Circa 610

A wooden wax tablet with bronze stylus and eraser, originating from Egpyt circa 600. (View Larger)

"During the middle ages wax tablets were in general use. Daily life cannot be imagined without them: students were supposed to carry a diptych at their belt for easy use, while writers used them for rough notes. They were also employed in private correspondence. Above all, medieval accounts were kept to a large extent on wax tablets, and most of the surviving examples served this purpose; even books of wax tablets were formed. In some places the use of wax tablets for accounting continued up to the nineteenth century" (Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography. Antiquity & the Middle Ages [1990] 14).

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Arab Conquest of Egypt Resulted in Smaller Exports of Papyrus-- A Probable Cause of the Eventual Adoption of Greek Minuscule in Byzantine Book Production 641

Canon 22 of the Council of Nicea II (British Museum, MS Barocci 26, fol. 140b), where the top is written in minuscule and the bottom in unical.(View Larger)

Having conquered Egypt the previous year, in 641 General 'Amr ibn al-'As founded the city of Fustat, later to named Cairo. This was the first city on the continent of Africa founded by Muslims.

Since the only supply of papyrus came from Egypt, it is thought that the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs may have coincided with a reduced supply of papyrus in Constantinople. The reduction might have been caused either by the exhaustion of the papyrus plantations or because the Arabs retained the available supply for their own use. As a result of the lack of papyrus Byzantine writers were dependent on the more expensive medium of parchment, and this may have contributed to the eventual adoption in Byzantine book production of the more economical Greek minuscule hand, which had previously mainly been employed for letters, documents, accounts, etc. "It occupied far less space on the page and could be written at high speed by a practised scribe" (Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars, 3rd ed [1991] 59).

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The Oldest Surviving Arabic Papyrus 642

The oldest surviving Arabic papyrus, and the oldest dated Arabic text from the Islamic era, PERF No. 558, dates from 22 AH (642 CE). Found in Heracleopolis (Herakleopolis Magna, Ἡρακλεόπολις) in Egypt, it is a bilingual Arabic-Greek fragment, consisting of a tax receipt: "Document concerning the delivery of sheep to the Magarites and other people who arrived, as a down-payment of the taxes of the first indiction."

"Features of interest include:

"The first well-attested use of the disambiguating dots that would become an essential feature of the Arabic alphabet;

"It begins with the Islamic formula "Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim" (In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate)

"It records the date both in the Islamic calendar (Jumada I, year 22) and in the Coptic calendar (30 Pharmouthi, 1st indiction), allowing confirmation of the traditional date of the Hijra.

"In Greek, it calls the Arabs "Magaritae", a term, believed to be related to the Arabic "muhajir", emigrant, often used in the earliest non-Islamic sources. It also calls them "Saracens".

"After excavation, the papyrus was put in the Erzherzog Rainer Papyrus Collection in Vienna" (Wikipedia article on PERF 558, accessed 12-29-2012).

In December 2012 a list with descriptions of "Dated Muslim Texts From 1-72 AH / 622-691 CE: Documentary Evidence For Early Islam" was available at Islamic-awareness.org. 

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Foundation of Corbie Abbey, Renowned for its Library 659 – 661

The Abbey at Corbie. (View Larger)

Balthild, widow of Clovis II, and her son Clotaire III, founded Corbie Abbey about 659-661. The first monks at Corbie came from Luxeuil Abbey, which had been founded by Saint Columbanus in 590, and the Irish respect for classical learning fostered at Luxeuil was carried forward at Corbie. The rule of these founders was based on the Benedictine rule, as modified by Columbanus.

"Above all, Corbie was renowned for its library, which was assembled from as far as Italy, and for its scriptorium. In addition to its patristic writings, it is recognized as an important center for the transmission of the works of Antiquity to the Middle Ages. An inventory (of perhaps the 11th century) lists the church history of Hegesippus, now lost, among other extraordinary treasures. In the scriptorium at Corbie the clear and legible hand known as Carolingian minuscule was developed, in about 780, as well as a distinctive style of illumination.

"Three of Corbie's ninth-century scholars were Ratramnus (died ca. 868), Radbertus Paschasius (died 865) and the shadowy figure of Hadoard. Jean Mabillon, the father of paleography, had been a monk at Corbie.

"Among students of Tertullian, the library is of interest as it contained a number of unique copies of Tertullian's works, the so-called corpus Corbiense and included some of his unorthodox Montanist treatises, as well as two works by Novatian issued pseudepigraphically under Tertullian's name. The origin of this group of non-orthodox texts has not satisfactorily been identified.

"Among students of medieval architecture and engineering, such as are preserved in the notebooks of Villard de Honnecourt, Corbie is of interest as the center of renewed interest in geometry and surveying techniques, both theoretical and practical, as they had been transmitted from Euclid through the Geometria of Boëthius and works by Cassiodorus (Zenner).

"In 1638, 400 manuscripts were transferred to the library of the monastery of St. Germain des Prés in Paris. In the French Revolution, the library was closed and the last of the monks dispersed: 300 manuscripts still at Corbie were moved to Amiens, 15 km to the west. Those at St-Germain des Prés were loosed on the market, and many rare manuscripts were obtained by a Russian diplomat, Petrus Dubrowsky [Peter Petrovich Dubrovsky] and sent to St. Petersburg. Other Corbie manuscripts are at the Bibliothèque Nationale. Over two hundred manuscripts from the great library at Corbie are known to survive" (Wikipedia article on Corbie Abbey, accessed 08-20-2009).

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The Ceolfrid Bible Circa 685 – 710

A page from the Ceolfrid Bible. (View Larger)

The Ceolfrid Bible, a fragment of a late 7th or early 8th century Bible, is almost certainly a portion of one of the three single-volume Bibles ordered made by Ceolfrid (Ceolfrith), Abbot of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow. It is closely related to the Codex Amiatinus, which is the only surviving complete Bible of the three ordered by Ceolfrid. The eleven surviving vellum leaves of the manuscript contain portions of the Latin Vulgate text of the third and fourth Books of Kings. The manuscript is preserved in the British Library (MS Add. 45025). In February 2014 a digital facsimile was available at this link.

"An additional single leaf, now in the British Library (Add. MS 37777) contains the another portion of the Third Book of Kings and shares all of the similarities shared by the Ceolfrid Bible and the Codex Amiatinus. This leaf almost certainly is either also from the Ceolfrid Bible or from the third Bible ordered made by Ceolfrid.

"The leaves of the Ceolfrid Bible were used in the 16th century as covers for the Chartulary of the lands of the Willoughby family. They were afterwards preserved at Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire. Additional MS 37777 was discovered by Rev. William Greenwell in Newcastle" (Wikipedia article on Ceolfrid Bible, accessed 01-30-2010).

The script of the Ceolfrid Bible and MS 37777 are thought to have originated in the same scriptorium as the Codex Amiatinus.

"It is recorded by Bede that Ceolfrid had two other copies of the Bible made, besides that which he took as a gift to the Pope. In 1909 a single leaf, in writing closely resembling that of the Amiatinus, was discovered by the Rev. W. Greenwell in a curiosity shop in Newcastle, and within this last year eleven more leaves, which had been utilised to form the covers of estate accounts in the north of England, were . . . secured for the nation. All twelve leaves, which include parts of 1 and 2 Kings, and unquestionably form part of one of the sister codices of the Amiatinus, are now in the British Museum, where they are a monument of the time when, under the leadership of Benedict Biscop, Ceolfrid, and especially Bede, the north of England led the Western world in scholarship" (Kenyon, Our Bible & the Ancient Manuscripts 4th Ed. [1939] 175).

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700 – 800

The First State Libraries in Japan 702

"It is in the eighth century that we have the first firm evidence [in Japan] of collections of books maintained by the state, by religious institutions and by private individuals. The lawcodes promulgated in 702 established the first state library, the Zushoryo, which was supervised by a government ministry [in Nara] and was largely modelled on the Bi shu sheng of Tang China. It was responsible for collecting and conserving both Buddhist and Confucian books and, unlike the Bi shu sheng, was required to complile official histories. For these purposes it had a staff of 4 papermakers, 10 brushmakers, 4 inkmakers and 20 copyists, for collecting was partly dependent on the copying of texts held elsewhere. It consumed huge quantities of paper, drawn by the tenth century from 42 of the 66 provinces, and appears to have become increasingly absorbed in sutra-copying. The statutes contained in the Engishiki include a number of regulations relating to the  Zushoryo, such as a requirement that the books be aired regularly, which shows that it also functioned as a repository of books. Precisely what books is unclear, although a ruling in 728 refers to both secular and Buddhist works as well as screens and paintings, and by 757 the Zushoryo had its own catalogue. The same source stipulates that permission was needed if somebody wished to borrow more than one item at a time, but doubtless the right to borrow was restricted. In 833 some of the buildings were burnt down and in 1027 its treasures were destroyed by fire. It may have been revived as there is a record of another fire in 1042, but it then disappears from the record until the Meiji government established a new Zushoryo in 1884" (Peter Kornicki, The Book in Japan: A Cultural History from the Beginnings to the Nineteenth Century [2001] 365).

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The Earliest Surviving Letter Known to Have Been Written from One Englishman to Another 704 – 705

In 1704 Bishop Wealdhere of London wrote a "letter close" , i.e. a letter for private communication, to Archbishop Brihtwold of Canterbury.

This letter, formerly in the library of Robert Cotton, and preserved in the British Library (Brit. Lib. MS Cotton August II, 18), is the earliest surviving

"letter known to have been written by one Englishman to another. . . . Although the letter has no dating clause, internal evidence shows that it cannot have been written earlier than 704, the year of Centred's accession to the Mercian throne, or later than 705, the year of Bishop Haedde's death" (Pierre Chaplais, "The letter from Bishop Wealdhere of London to Archibshop Brihtwold of Canterbury: the earliest original 'letter close' extant in the West", Parkes and Watson (eds.) Medieval Scribes, Manuscripts & Libraries. Essays presented ot N.R. Ker [1978] 3-4).

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The Earliest Image of a Scribe Using a Writing Table Circa 715 – 720

(View Larger)

Images of scribes in the ancient world typically depict them as writing on their knee. While this may have been a convention or custom, it is hard to believe that no scribes in the ancient world had access to tables for writing.

Saenger theorizes that a writing table, as well as word spacing, would have been necessary for visual copying using silent reading, rather than copying from dictation as is understood to have been done in the ancient world.

The earliest unambiguous image of a scribe using a writing table appears in the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated gospel book that incorporates word spacing, produced on the tidal island of Lindisfarne off the north-east coast of England, circa 715-720. The image is a portrait of the evangelist Mark. f.93v. For a color reproduction see Brown, The Lindisfarne Gospels. Society, Spirituality and the Scribe (2003) plate 14.

Saenger, Space Between Words. The Origins of Silent Reading (1997) 48.

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The Earliest Surviving Copy of St. Benedict's Rules Circa 725

A painting of St. Benedict drafting the Benedictine Rules, by Herman Nieg, c. 1926. The painting resides in the church of Heiligenkreuz Abbey near Baden bei Wien, Lower Austria. (View Larger)

The manuscript of the Rule of St. Benedict written in England in during the first part of the eighth century, in uncial script on the model of Italian manuscripts, "must have belonged to one of the earliest communities of Roman monks in England" (de Hamel, History of Illuminated Manuscripts [1986] 13, caption to plate 5). It is the oldest surviving copy of Benedict's Rules for monastic life, including the value of scribal work. The manuscript is preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Ms. Hatton 48, f. 17v). That the earliest surviving copy of this seminal text for the operation of monasteries should originate in England at this date tells much about the instability of continental institutions from the time of Benedict's promulgation of the rules in 529 through the eighth century.

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Finger Reckoning and Computus in the Eighth Century 725

A portrait of the Venerable Bede, by John Doyle Penrose, c. 1902.

In De temporum ratione liber (On the Reckoning of Time), written in 725, the Venerable Bede, a monk at the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth, England, explained the method of finger reckoning which had evolved since the ancient world. It was, he wrote, a reliable method, especially when a writing surface or writing implements were not available. Bede's discussion of finger reckoning appeared in the first chapter of De temporum ratione entitled "De computo et loquela digitorum" (On Computing and Speaking with the Fingers).

Though finger reckoning was mentioned by classical authors such as Herodotus, no ancient treatises on the subject survived, and it is thought that the technique was passed down mainly through oral tradition. Bede described "upwards of fifty finger symbols, the numbers extending through one million" (Smith, History of Mathematics [1925] II, 200).  Undoubtedly Bede's text, of which numerous medieval manuscripts survived, was influential on conveying the method during the Middle Ages.

Bede's De computo, vel loquela per gestum digitorum appears to have made its first appearance in print in In Hoc in volumine haec continentur M. Val. Probus de notis Roma. ex codice manuscript castigatior . . . , ed. Giovanni Tacuino published in Venice by the editor, Tacuino, who was also a printer, in 1525. Tacuino published Bede's text after the text of the Roman grammarian Marcus Valerius Probus's De notis, a list of legal and administrative abbreviations and formulae used in stone inscriptions that had been discovered in 1417 by humanist Poggio Bracciolini. This was an essential guide to understanding ancient Latin epigraphy. In keeping with that theme the title page of Tacuino's volume was designed to resemble a stone inscription.

The editio princeps of De temporum ratione was published by Sichardus in 1529, four years after Tacuino issued his edition. Portions of De temporum ratione appeared in print as early as 1505, but these do not appear to have included the section on finger-reckoning. Smith, in his Rara arithmetica, stated that the 1522 edition of Johannes Aventinus’s Abacus atque vetustissima, veterum latinorum per digitos manusque numerandi contains a description of Bede’s finger-reckoning; however, this may be an error, since there was no record of this edition in OCLC or the Karlsruhe Virtual Catalogue when we searched the database in March 2013. Smith himself described only the 1532 edition of Aventinus’s work (see Rara arithmetica, pp. 136-138). 

In De computo . . . Bede listed finger and hand symbols for the  numerals 1 through 9999; these roughly work like a placement system. The middle, ring, and little fingers of the left hand denote the  digits; the thumb and index fingers on the left hand express the tens; the thumb and index finger on the right hand the hundreds; and the  middle, ring and little fingers the thousands . . . The informal manner in which Bede explained how to flex the fingers and form gestures seems to retain traces of oral instruction.

Prior to Europe’s adoption of Arabic numerals, finger-reckoning provided a rudimentary method of place-value calculation. “Neither Bede nor any of his contemporaries in Western Europe knew about place value or zero, but finger reckoning enabled them to proceed as if they did. Finger joints supplied place value—one joint 10s, another 100s and so on—and zero was indicated by the normal relaxed position of the fingers—by nothing, so to speak. ” (Crosby, The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600, p. 4.)

"The noted historian of science, George Sarton, called the eighth century 'The Age of Bede'. Bede wrote several major scientific works: a treatise On the Nature of Things, modeled in part after the work of the same title by Isidore of Seville; a work On Time, providing an introduction to the principles of Easter computus; and a longer work on the same subject; On the Reckoning of Time, which became the cornerstone of clerical scientific education during the so-called Carolingian renaissance of the ninth century. He also wrote several shorter letters and essays discussing specific aspects of computus and a treatise on grammar and on figures of speech for his pupils.

"On the Reckoning of Time (De temporum ratione) included an introduction to the traditional ancient and medieval view of the cosmos, including an explanation of how the spherical earth influenced the changing length of daylight, of how the seasonal motion of the Sun and Moon influenced the changing appearance of the New Moon at evening twilight, and a quantitative relation between the changes of the Tides at a given place and the daily motion of the moon. Since the focus of his book was calculation, Bede gave instructions for computing the date of Easter and the related time of the Easter Full Moon, for calculating the motion of the Sun and Moon through the zodiac, and for many other calculations related to the calendar. He gives some information about the months of the Anglo-Saxon calendar in chapter XV. Any codex of Bede's Easter cycle is normally found together with a codex of his 'De Temporum Ratione' " (Wikipedia article on Bede, accessed on 11-22-2008).

For a discussion of the manual calculating methods described by Bede see Sherman, Writing on Hands. Memory and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (2000) 28-30.

(This entry was last revised on 10-02-2014.)

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Evidence of the Decline of Literacy Among the Laity in the Early Middle Ages Circa 750

"Of course, we have no early medieval Pompeii that would allow us to make a true and fair comparison of levels of casual secular literacy between Roman and post-Roman times. But we do have plenty of domestic objects from both periods, and these are a rich source of scratched letters and names in the Roman period, as well as of occasional messages (like those we have seen on tiles from Britain). In the early Middle Ages, domestic objects are almost always mute. They do very occasionally have names carved or scratched on them, but these are almost invariably very neat, suggesting that they have been applied with some care, perhaps even by a specialist writer, rather than roughly scratched by the owners themselves. There is no group of finds from post-Roman centuries that remotely compares with the 400 graffiti, mainly scratched initials, on the bottoms of pots from a Roman fort in Germany, which were almost certainly added by the soldiers themselves, in order to identify their individual vessels.

"In a much simpler world, the urgent need to read and write declined, and with it went the social pressure on the secular elite to be literate. Widespread literacy in the post-Roman West definitely became confined to the clergy. A detailed analysis of almost 1,000 subscribers to charters from eighth-century Italy has shown that just under a third of witnesses were able to sign their own names, the remainder making only a mark (identified as theirs by the charter's scribe). But the large majority of those who signed (71 per cent) were clergy. Amongst the 633 lay subscribers, only 93, or 14 per cent, wrote their own name. Since witnesses to charters were generally drawn from the ranks of the 'important' people of local society, and since the ability to write one's name does not require a profound grasp of literary skills, this figure suggests that even basic literacy was a very rare phenomenon amongst the laity as a whole" (Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization [2005] 166).

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The Earliest Datable Application of Carolingian Minuscule 772 – 781

The Maurdramnus Bible was commissioned between 772 and 781 by Abbot Maurdramnus of Corbie probably in 12 or 13 volumes, of which 5 volumes survived in the Bibliothèque municipale d'Amiens (MSS 6, 7, 9, 11, 12) and a portion of a sixth volume survived in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Lat. 13174). This manuscript was written in the first datable Carolingian minuscule.

" . . .the script of Maurdramnus Bible is a consistent development of Miniscule, more directly out of Half-Uncial even than the earliest writing at Corbie between 750 and 758 practised under Leutchar. . . It begins on the grand scale for the Pentateuch and [the script] was reduced in size as the work proceeded. As the colophon (mentioning Maurdramnus) occurs at the end of Maccabees, it is more than plausible to say that the work consisted of the Old Testament only. . . ." (Morison, Politics and Script. . . . Barker ed. [1972] 132-33, pl. 87).

Because the script employed in the Maurdramnus Bible has its own character it is sometimes identified as "Maurdramnus Script."

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"The Oldest Western European Codex in Private Hands" (As of 2009) Circa 775

A page fromt he 'Canones concillorum,' written in both unical and miniscule.(View Larger)

When I accessed the website of German rare book and manuscript dealer Dr. Jörn Gunther in June 2009 I found the following manuscript offered for sale under the heading, "The Oldest Western European Codex in Private Hands."

The history of the writing of this manuscript as understood through its palaeography described below. The texts which it contains, and the details of its provenance reflect significant aspects of Carolingian manuscript production, and the history of collecting medieval manuscripts. Here is Dr. Gunther's description:

"Canones conciliorum. Manuscript on vellum, written by an insular scribe. Northern Italy, c.775.

"223 x 175 mm. 94 leaves. Internally complete, lacking one gathering at the beginning and some leaves at the end. The quires are signed with Roman numbers from II-XIII.– Written space fol.1-64v:165 x 130 mm, on fol. 65-94v: 175 x 135 mm, ruled in blind for one column of 24-25 and 19-20 lines. fol. 1-60v written in half uncials and precarolingian minuscules, fol. 61-94v in precarolingian minuscules in olive grey, light brown and dark brown ink. Many capitals in uncial with simple decoration with penwork ornament, including one initial in a form of a fish.– In fine condition for a volume of such antiquity. Right upper corner on fol.70 torn away with some loss of text.– 19th-century brown morocco by the Parisian bookbinder Marcelin Lortic.


"1. The codex was written by an insular scribe from Ireland or Northumbria, working in Northern Italy.

2. Monastery of Reichenau in Germany (at an early date).

3. Bound in Paris by Marcellin Lortic who opened his shop in the Rue St Honoré in 1840.

4. Ms. 17.849 of the collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872); his oldest western manuscript and one of Phillipps's greatest treasures.

5. William Robinson Ltd., cat. 81: Precious Manuscripts, Historic Documents and Rare Books, London 1950, no. 92.

6. Dr. Martin Bodmer, Geneva, Switzerland (1899-1971).

7. Peter and Irene Ludwig, Aachen, ms.XIV 1 (1978-1983).

8. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu (1983-1988).

9. Now: Private collection, Europe.


"fol.1-58: Canones Conciliorum– fol.58-77v: Symmachiana, so-called ‘Symmachian forgeries’– fol.77v-94v: Decretals of Siricius, Boniface I, Innocent I, Zosimus, and Celestine I; end of text missing. Following the death of Pope Gelasius I († 496) Dionysius Exiguus (c.470- c.555), a skythian monk in Rome, was commissioned by the papal court to compile the ‘Collectio Dionysiana’ which united the canons of the councils and papal decretals. This anthology was the first compilation of this kind carried out in the Western Church and forms the foundation of Western Latin canon law. The compilation of Dionysius exists in three editions of which the codex at issue represents the so-called ‘Dionysiana II’. Manuscripts of the ‘Dionysiana II’ are rare uncombined with other texts, while only one codex preserved as a complete book is of an earlier date: ms.fol.v.II.3 in St Petersburg (Rossijskaja Nacionalnaja Biblioteka), a Burgundian codex dating from the 7th century (CLA 11 no.1061). Apart from this manuscript only a fragment in the Biblioteca Amploniana in Erfurt (Ampl.2°74) can be dated earlier having been written during the second half of the 6th century, presumably in Italy.

"After the Canones Conciliorum there follows as an insert, which cannot be found in this form in comparable collections, the so-called ‘Symmachian forgeries’, dating from thetime of Pope Symmachus (498-514; see Landau 1998). He was elected pope after the death of Anastasius II by a certain faction; a second faction declared the archpriest Laurence as pontiff. As a result of the turmoil which followed the elections, the ‘Symmachian forgeries were written, which strove to demonstrate by means of fictitious papal case files that the pope would not be subject to a human court of justice, but solely to the judgment of God.

"The third component of the book comprises decretals compiled under the pontificate of Pope Hormisdas (514-523) and contains the complete corpus of the old canon law, which consisted of the decrees of the Middle Eastern, Greek, African and Roman councils as well as those of the popes. The compilation is known as the Sanblasianus edition, because it was edited on the basis of a manuscript which first belonged to St. Blasien in the Black Forest and then to St. Paul in Lavanttal (Stiftsbibliothek, cod.7/1). Only seven manuscripts of this edition are preserved, three of which are older than the present codex (Paris, BN, lat. 3836, dating from the second half of the 8th century; Cologne, Dombibliothek, ms.213 dating from the first third of the 8th century and the Sanblasianus, which also dates from the mid-8th century). The oldest manuscript within the group (Cologne, Dombibliothek, ms.213) was written in Northumbria and brought to Cologne in the 8th century.

"The Canones conciliorum gained such an importance in subsequent decades that the text was duplicated again and again in the Frankish empire and from this later period over 100 manuscripts are preserved in the Frankish area alone. The codex was written by three different scribes. The main scribe (fol.2-60v) wrote the Canones conciliorum as well as the opening of the ‘Symmachian forgeries’. Palaeographic analysis reveals that this scribe came to the continent from an insular scriptorium and finally settled in northern Italy. It is not ascertainable, however, in which northern Italian scriptorium the manuscript was written. The palaeographic indications cannot be used to date the manuscript to a specific year, but it is very likely that it was executed in the years around 775, making the present manuscript contemporary with the famous copy of the Canones compilation, the so-called Dionysio-Hadriana,which was presented to the Frankish ruler Charlemagne (768-814) by Pope Hadrian I (772-795) in Rome in 774. After the presentation, the wording of the statute book was made compulsory for the Frankish empire, and numerous transcripts of the codex, originally kept in Aachen and now lost, were produced."

Note: I reformatted the description somewhat for this database, and left out the bibliographical references cited at the end of Dr. Gunther's description. The hyperlinks are my additions.

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The Contributions of the Emperor Charlemagne and the Educator Alcuin to the Carolingian Renaissance Circa 780 – 820

 "The classical revival of the late eighth and early ninth centuries, without doubt the most momentous and critical stage in the transmission of the legacy of Rome, was played out against the background of a reconstituted empire which stretched from the Elbe to the EbroCalais to Rome, welded together for a time into a political and spiritual whole by the commanding personality of an emperior who added to his military and material resources the blessing of Rome. Although the political achievement of Charlemagne (768-814) crumbled in the hands of his successors, the cultural movement which it fostered retained its impetus in the ninth century and survived into the tenth.

"The secular and ecclesiastical administration of a vast empire called for a large number of trained priests and functionaries. As the only common denominator in a heterogeneous realm and as the repository of both the classical and the Christian heritage of an earlier age, the Church was the obvious means of implementing the educational program necessary to produce a trained executive. But under the Merovingians the Church had fallen on evil days; some of the priests were so ignorant of Latin that Boniface heard one carrying out a baptism of dubious efficacy in nomine patria et filia et spiritus sancti (Epist. 68), and knowledge of antiquity had worn so thin that the author of one sermon was under the unfortunate impression that Venus was a man. Reform had begun under [Charlemagne's father] Pippin the Short; but now the need was greater, and Charlemagne felt a strong personal responsibility to raise the intellectual level of the clergy, and through them of his subjects. . . ." (Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars 3rd ed [1991] 92-93).

In 780, at Parma Charlemagne, King of the Franks, met the Anglo-Saxon monk Alcuin, who was head of the episcopal school at the Cathedral of York. Charlemagne took scholarship seriously. He had learned to read as an adult, although he never quite learned how to write. At this time of reduced literacy outside of the clergy, writing of any kind was an achievement for kings, many of whom were illiterate.

Recognizing that Alcuin was a scholar who could help him achieve a renaissance of learning and reform of the Church, in 782 Charlemagne induced Alcuin to move to the royal court as Master of the Palace School at Aachen, where Alcuin remained until 796. This school was attended by members of the royal court and the sons of noble families. At Aachen Alcuin established a great library, for which Charlemagne obtained manuscripts from Monte Cassino, Rome, Ravenna and other sources.

"Books are naturally attracted to centres of power and influence, like wealth and works of art and all that goes with a prosperous cultural life. Some arrive as the prerequisites of conquest, or as the gifts that pour in unasked when the powerful have made thier wishes plain, some in response to the magnetic pull of an active and dynamic cultural movement. Others were actively sought out by those promoting the educational and cultural aims of the revival. There was such a break in the copying of the classics in the Dark Ages that many of the books that provided the exemplars from which the Carolingian copies were made must have been ancient codices, and this immediately raises a fundamental question; where did all the books that have salvaged so much of what we have of Latin literature come from? As far as we can tell from the evidence available, the total contribution of Ireland and England, Spain and Gaul, was small in comparison with what came from Italy itself, from Rome and Campania and particularly, it would seem, from Ravenna after its capture by the forces of Charlemagne. Nor did the wholesale transference of classical texts to northern Europe exhaust the deposits in Italy, for Italy continued, down to the end of the Renaissance and beyond, to produce from time to time texts which, as far as we can tell, had been unknown north of the Alps. 

"Gathering impetus with each decade, the copying of books went on apace through the length and breadth of Charlemagne's empire. Such ancient classical manuscripts as could be found, with their imposing majuscule scripts, were transformed, often at speed, into minuscule copies, and these in time begot further copies, branching out into these complex patterns to which the theory of stemmatics has reduced this fascinating process. The routes by which texts travelled as they progressed from place to place were naturallty governed in part by geographical factors, as they moved along the valleys of the Loire or Rhine, but even more by the complex relationships that existed between institutions and the men who moved between them. There are so many gaps in our knowedge, and so many of pieces in this puzzle have been irrevocably lost, that we can never hope to build up a convincing distribution map for the movements of texts in this period. But certain patterns are discernible, and the drift of texts south and west through the Low Countries and northern France, and down the Rhine to the shores of Lake Constance, appears to point to a fertile core in the area of Aachen, and this would confirm the crucial importance of the palace as a centre and a catalyst for the dissemination of classical texts" (Reynolds & Wilson, op. cit. 97-98).

Also at Aachen, and later at Tours to which he retired in 796, Alcuin promoted the development of the Carolingian minuscule, which became the writing standard for the eighth and ninth centuries.

"The use. . . of a script more compact in the body and needing less time to write, may have been decided upon in view of the plans to proceed with a State educational project, the greatest ever undertaken in the West, or perhaps anywhere at any time in the Roman Empire. For such an enterprise the employment of an accelerated script would become an interest of State, or, to be accurate, of State and Church" (Morison, Politics and Script. . . . Barker ed. [1972] 143).

Regarding the origin of Carolingian minuscule there is little consensus. In the words of palaeographer Stan Knight:

"Some authorities detect Roman (ie.half-uncial) roots, others French pre-Carolingian, some even see Insular influence (perhaps seeking a link with Alcuin), others cursive or semi-cursive scripts. Various combinations of these influences are also suggested. The opinions are many and bewildering.
        "The problem is made more complicated because the actual emergence of Carolingian minuscule appears to have been rather haphazard. There is no solid evidence to suggest that it emanated from just one center, nor can any systematic development of the script be discerned (apart from the natural maturing observable in the work of energetic scriptoria like that at Tours). . . . My considered opinion is that Carolingian minuscule was a modification of the ancient and serviceable half-uncial script, incorporating certain features gathered from other current scripts, and that the Abbey of Corbie led the field in this vitally important calligraphic development" http://dh101.humanities.ucla.edu/DH101Fall12Lab1/items/show/8, accessed 08-07-2014).

Alcuin revised the church liturgy, and also revised Jerome's translation of the Bible. Alcuin and his associates— particularly the Visigothic writer, poet and bishop Theodulf of Orleans, who produced his own, competing, edition of the Bible — were responsible for an intellectual movement within the Carolingian Empire in which many schools were attached to monasteries and cathedrals, and Latin was restored as a literary language. Along with these schools there was a flowering of libraries and manuscript book production.

Charlemagne's Admonitio generalis, a collection of legislation known as a capitulary issued in 789, covered educational and ecclesiastical reform within the Frankish kingdom, established his religious and educational aspirations for the kingdom, and became a foundation for the Carolingian Renaissance.  

"Before the surge of education following the Admonitio Generalis and subsequent Carolingian Renaissance, it was difficult for the Frankish people to connect with Christianity and the church. Peasant life was very hard; the people were illiterate and Latin, the language of the church, was not their native language, making Christianity and the Bible difficult to access. Nobles also were largely uneducated and uncultured, with few devoted Christians among them. Only the clergy were consistent in having some level of education, and thus they had the best understanding and exposure to the Bible and the full extent of Christianity. The schools, which the Admonitio ordered established by the monasteries and cathedrals, began a tradition of higher learning in Carolingian Europe, leading the revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance. The fulfillment of Admonitio Generalis meant that the study of language, rhetoric and grammar in these institutions, as well as the standardizing of writing scripture and Latin, was undertaken in order to make religious texts and books accessible to the clergy, as well as their correction and standardization. However this strengthened all forms of Carolingian literature, and book production, as well as developments in law, historical writing, and uses of poetry all flourished in these schools. In fact, the capitularies themselves, and the level of language they use, are examples of the increasing importance of writing within the Frankish kingdom. As well as language, the Admonitio Generalis ordered other arts such as numbers and arithmetic, ratios, taxes, measure, architecture, geometry, and astrology to be taught, leading to developments in each field and their application within society. Charlemagne pushed for an educated clergy who could help lead reform, because it was his belief that the study of arts would aid them in understanding sacred texts, which they could then pass on to their followers. During the Carolingian Renaissance, Charlemagne unified religious practices and culture within his realm, creating a Christian kingdom, and ultimately unifying his empire" (Wikipedia article on Admonitio Generalis, accessed 08-06-2014).

"The Carolingian programme of renewal was consciously based on Antiquity. Order and stability lay in a vigorous revival of that which was useful and applicable from the Roman past: e.g. its imagery and art forms, such as the human figure as the central theme of art, or its reliance on the written word. Although, culturally, its upward trajectory had peaked by AD 877, this Carolingian renewal had by then insured the survival of ancient art and literature. The text of virutally every ancient Latin author is today edited largely from Carolingian manuscripts. Texts of only a handful of ancient authors—TibullusPropertiusCatullus among them—are not reconstructed from manuscripts of the Carolingian renaissance" (Rouse, "The Transmission of the Texts," Jenkyns ed. The Legacy of Rome: A New Appraisal [1992] 46-47).

(This entry was last revised on 08-19-2014).

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About 7000 Manuscripts and Fragments Survive from the Late 8th and 9th Centuries Circa 780 – 875

During the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of "enlightenment" and relative stability of educational and political institutions, scholars sought out and copied in the new legible standardized Carolingian minuscule many Roman texts that had been wholly forgotten. As a result, much of our knowledge of classical literature derives from copies made in the scriptoria of Charlemagne and other scriptoria during the Carolingian Renaissance. Roughly 7000 manuscripts written in Carolingian script survive from the 8th and 9th centuries. The availability of Carolingian manucripts during the Renaissance undoubtedly contributed to their being used as models for Renaissance calligraphy and later for type fonts.  

"Thanks to the diversity in local styles of script among the c. seven thousand manuscripts and fragments from the late eighth and ninth century, besides the roughly one hundred which can be localised, other still anonymous large, small, and very small groups can be distinguished, but not identified. Some three hundred and fifty manuscripts still survive from Tours (i.e. basically from St. Martin's), over three hundred from St Gall, rough three hundred from Rheims (which which several scriptoria were involved) roughly two hundred from Corbie, over one hundred from Lorsch, Salzburg, Lyons, and Freising. Not only does Tours surprass the others in numbers but a full forty-five of the traceable codices are or were full one volume bibles (pandects) of 420-450 leaves, with a format of c. 55 x 40cm, written in two columns of fifty to fifty-two lines. Between the last years of Alcuin (for whom Northumbrian bibles probably provided the model) and 850, St Martin's produced two such bibles every year for the Carolingians, for episcopal churches, and for monasteries. These large-format bibles were imitated in other places, for example in Freising, and in two bibles dedicated to Charles the Bald, the Franco-Saxon: Paris, BN, Lat. 2, and the Bible of San Paolo fuori le mura, in Rome" (Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages [1990] 208).

"Though the Carolingian minuscule was superseded by Gothic hands, it later seemed so thoroughly 'classic' to the humanists of the early Renaissance that they took these Carolingian manuscripts to be Roman originals and modelled their Renaissance hand on the Carolingian one, and thus it passed to the 15th and 16th century printers of books, like Aldus Manutius of Venice" (Wikipedia article on Carolingian minuscule, accessed 11-23-2008).

(This entry was last revised on 08-06-2014.)

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The Earliest Example of the Carolingian Illumination Style 781 – 783

The Godescalc Evangelistary or Godescalc Gospel Lectionary, an illuminated manuscript Gospel Book written by the Frankish scribe Godescalc, was commissioned by Charlemagne and his wife Hildegard and produced in the court scriptorium at Aachen between 781 and 783. The manuscript was intended to commemorate Charlemagne's march to Italy, his meeting with Pope Adrian I, and the baptism of his son Pepin. The manuscript's dedication poem credits the work to Godescalc, and includes details of Charlemagne's march to Italy.  The manuscript is preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (NA. lat. 1203).

A product of the Carolingian Renaissance, the Godescalc Evangelistary is the earliest example of the Carolingian Illumination Style. "This style was characterized by naturalist motifs in the decoration, and a fusion of the Insular, early Christian (late Classical) and Byzantine styles. The artist used natural illusionism techniques to create the appearance of volume in the characters, and used elaborate shadings in light and dark to give characters depth. The Carolingian illumination style was the earliest style to regularly utilize minuscule script, the precursor to our modern lower case letters" (Wikipedia article on Godescalc Evangelistary, accessed 11-25-2011).

Morison, Politics and Script . . . Barker ed. (1972) 135-37, pl. 88.

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Used by Charlemagne at his Coronation as Holy Roman Emperor 794 – 800

The Vienna Coronation Gospels, also known as the Coronation Evangeliar, is the principle work among a small group of surviving manuscripts produced in the scriptorium of the Palace School at Aachen sometime between 794 and 800. It was used by the Emperor Charlemagne at his coronation on Christmas Day 800 when he placed three fingers of his right hand on the first page of the Gospel of Saint John and took his oath. Traditionally, it is considered the manuscript found in Charlemagne's tomb when it was opened in the year 1000 by Emperor Otto III.

"To this day we do not know exactly where Charlemagne’s grave lies. And so we do not know either where the legendary event which is so important for the manuscript actually took place in the year 1000. Otto III had the grave opened and discovered the codex on the knees of the emperor, who had been buried in a sitting position. He removed the book – and thereby laid the foundation for its ascent to become the central book and work of art in the Empire. During the coronations of the kings, which without exception took place in Aachen until 1531, according to tradition the book was opened at the first page of St. John’s Gospel, and the future king took his oath under the eyes of St. John the Evangelist on the words 'In the beginning was the Word' " (http://www.faksimile.de/werk/Coronation_Gospels_of_the__Holy_Roman_Empire.php?we_objectID=800, accessed 11-03-2013).

"The Coronation Evangeliar manuscript consists of 236 crimson-dyed parchment pages with gold and silver ink text. The pages measure 32.4 cm × 24.9 cm (12.8 in × 9.8 in), and contain text presented in one column, 26 lines per page. The incipit page of each Gospel shows the three writing styles common to valuable illustrated manuscripts from the late antique period—the capitalis rustica of the first line, followed by the monumental capitalis quadrata of the second line, which introduces the Latin text of the Gospel in gold ink, which is presented in continuous uncial script with no spaces between the words or punctuation.

"The book is decorated with 16 plates and four portraits depicting the Evangelists—one at the start of each Gospel. The portrait paintings are in a Carolingian style derived from Byzantine art. In the margin of the first page of the Gospel of Luke the Greek name Demetrius presbyter is written in gold capital letters. This may be the signature of the scribe or illuminator and may indicate that there were Byzantine artists in the court of Charlemagne.

"The Coronation Evangeliar cover was created by the goldsmith Hans von Reutlingen of Aachen c. 1500. Designed in high relief, the gold cover shows God the Father seated in front of the canopy of his throne. His left hand is closed over the Bible, and his right hand is raised in a gesture of blessing directed at Mary, who is shown grasping her heart during the Annunciation. The right side of the cover shows the Angel of the Annunciation. God the Father is dressed in imperial vestments and wearing a mitre crown, similar to the one worn by Maximilian I, who was Holy Roman Emperor at the time the cover was produced. The four corners of the front cover are decorated with four medalions bearing symbols of the four Evangelists" (Wikipedia article on Vienna Coronation Gospels, accessed 11-03-2013). 

The Coronation Evangeliar is preserved as part of the Imperial Treasury (Schatzkammer) in the Hofburg Palace, affiliated with the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. (Schatzkammer, Inv. XIII 18).

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800 – 900

Adoption of the Carolingian Minuscule Brought the Destruction of Many Late Roman Manuscripts 800 – 830

Example of Carolingian minuscule script.

"As a vehicle in which to disseminate its written work the Carolingian court discarded the ligatured, flowing chancery scripts that it had inherited from late Antiquity via the Merovingians in favour of a revived late-patristic half-uncial script, modified to produce the form we call Carolingian minuscule. The speed with which the script was adopted across the empire, between 800 and 830, can only be explained by the smallness of the ruling class of abbots and bishops who were responsible for its propagation. The literature of the past—the bulk of it still, at this date, in manuscripts produced by the Roman book trade—was recopied wholesale in the new script. By the end of the ninth century the Carolingians had produced a remarkable number of manuscripts, over 6,700 of which survive. Unfortunately, every manuscript copied in the legible new script rendered its exemplar superfluous. The movement that insured the survival of ancient literature also entailed the physical destruction of many late Roman manuscripts. Altogether, only some 1,865 Latin manuscripts survive, wholly or in part from all the centuries before AD 800" (Rouse, "The Transmission of the Texts," Jenkyns [ed] The Legacy of Rome: A New Appraisal [1992] 47).

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The First Written Swedish Literature Circa 800

The Rök Runestone, believed to be the earliest Sweedish writing, makes reference to Ostrogothic King, Theodoric the Great.

The Rök Runestone (Swedish: Rökstenen; Ög 136), one of the most famous runestones, features the longest known runic inscription in stone. Preserved by the church in Rök (between Mjölby and Ödeshög, close to the E4 and Lake Vättern), Östergötland, Sweden, it is considered the first piece of written Swedish literature. The stone dates from about 800.

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The Earliest Surviving Dated Manuscript Written in Greek Minuscule 815 – 835

A page from the Uspensky Gospels. (View Larger)

The earliest surviving dated example of a manuscript written in Greek minuscule is the Uspensky Gospels. The codex was probably written in Constantinople by monk named Nicholas between 815 and 835. Later it belonged to the monastery of Great Lavra of St. Sabas, known in Arabic as Mar Saba (Hebrew: מנזר מר סבא‎), a Greek Orthodox monastery overlooking the Kidron Valley in the West Bank east of Bethlehem in Palestine. In 1844 bp Porphiryj Uspienski took it along with other manuscripts, including a portion of the Codex Coislinianus, to Russia. The Uspensky Gospels is preserved in the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg (Gr. 219. 213. 101).

"As the script of this book is by no means immature or primitive, the adoption of this style should probably be dated at least half a century earlier. The place of its origin is not known for certain, but there are some grounds for thinking that it was popularized by members of the important Stoudios monastery in the capital [Constantinople], which was a well-known centre of book production at a later date. Gradually the uncial hand was abandoned, and by the end of the tenth century it was no longer used except for a few special liturgical books. The new script facilitated the copying of texts by making more economical use of parchment . . . .

"The transliteration of old uncial books into the new script was energetically undertaken by the scholars of the ninth century. It is largely owing to their activity that Greek literature can still be read, for the text of almost all authors depends ultimately on one or more books written in minuscule script at this date or shortly after, from which all later copies are derived; the quantity of literature that is available to us from the papyri and the uncial manuscripts is only a small proportion of the whole. In the process of transliteration mistakes were sometimes made, especially by misreading letters that were similar in the uncial script and therefore easily confused. At many points in Greek texts there are errors common to all the extant manuscripts which appear to be derived from the same source, and this source is usually taken to be a ninth-century copy. A further assumption generally made is that one minuscule copy was made from one uncial copy. The uncial book was then discarded, and the minuscule book became the source of all further copies. The theory has a certain a priori justification on two grounds, since the task of transliteration from a script that was becoming less and less familiar would not be willingly undertaken more often than was absolutely necessary, and there is at least some likelihod that after the destruction of the previous centuries many texts survived in one copy only. But these arguments do not amount to proof, and there are cases which can only be explained by more complicated hypotheses" (Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars 3rd ed ([1991] 59-60).

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The Utrecht Psalter, "The Most Frequently Studied of All Illuminated Books" Circa 816 – 850

Page from Utretch Psalter.

Page from Utretch Psalter.

The Utrecht Psalter, one of the most influential of ninth century illuminated manuscripts, with among the most unusual histories of ownership, contains 166 pen illustrations, one accompanying each of 150 psalms and 16 canticles in the manuscript. It was written in imitation rustic capitals. According to the most recent study (1996) the manuscript was written at the monastery of Hautvillers, near Reims, France as it is related in style to the Ebbo Gospels. It may have been sponsored by Ebbo, Archbishop of Reims, in which case it would be dated between 816 and 835. Others have argued for a date circa 850, believing that the psalm illustrations draw from the travels of Saxon theologian Gottschalk of Orbais, and the illustration with the Athanasian Creed and other details pertain more to Archbishop Hincmar, Ebbo's successor.  

The Utrecht Psalter has been characterized as "the most frequently studied of all illuminated books" (van der Horst 24), the authors of which also state that "it occupies a prominent position in every handbook or outline of the history of Western art."

Named for its ownership in Utecht, where it is preserved in the Universiteitsbibliotheek (MS Bibl. Rhenotraiectinae I Nr. 32), the psalter was, after its rediscovery in the library at Utrecht in 1858, thought for a period of time to be a sixth century work because of the archaic style of its rustic capitals. 


"A period spent in the late 9th century in the area of Metz, perhaps at the court of Charles the Bald, has been suggested on the basis of apparent influences from the manuscript in the art of the area. The manuscript had reached Canterbury Cathedral by c. 1000, at which time a copy began to be made of it; this, the Harley Psalter, is in the British Library as MS Harley 603. The Psalter was copied in full three times in the Middle Ages, the second copy being the Eadwine Psalter (Cambridge, Trinity College Library, MS R.17.1) of 1155–60, with additions 1160–70, and the texts extended to five versions of each psalm. The last copy is a fine version in full colour with gold backgrounds that is known as the "Anglo-Catalan Psalter" or MS Lat. 8846 in the BnF, of 1180-90 (Morgan, 47-9). This was half-illustrated by an English artist in about 1180-1200, and completed by a Catalan artist in 1340-50, naturally using a different Gothic style. The images are necessarily somewhat simplified, and the number of figures reduced.

"Earlier there were derivative works in other media; similar groups of figures appear in a Carolingian engraved crystal in the British Museum (the Lothair Crystal, stylistically very different) and metalwork, and some late Carolingian ivories repeat figure compositions found in the Utrecht psalter (Calkins, 211).

"The original manuscript spent at least two centuries at Canterbury from the year 1000, and after the English Dissolution of the Monasteries (Canterbury was a monastic cathedral) came into the possession of Robert Bruce Cotton, the famous English antiquary, at which point it was rebound, with his arms on the cover. Cotton lent the manuscript to the great collector [Thomas Howard], the [21st] Earl of Arundel, who took it into exile with him during the English Civil War; it was taken to the Netherlands in around 1642 and sold on Howard's death by his widow and son. It reached Utrecht University in 1716, at which point it was incorporated into the University Library. It was rediscovered in the library in 1858."


"The Utrecht Psalter is generally considered to be important to the development of Anglo-Saxon art in the late tenth century, as the artistic style of its artwork seems to have been drawn on and adapted by Anglo-Saxon artists of this time. Although it is hardly likely that this single manuscript was solely responsible for beginning an entire new phase, the style which developed from it is sometimes known as the 'Utrecht' style of outline drawing, and survived almost unchanged into the 1020s (Wormald).

"The Psalter is the earliest and most fully illustrated of a 'narrative' group of Carolingian Psalters and other manuscripts; the much greater freedom of their illustrations may represent a different, probably monastic, audience for them from the more hieratic productions for the court and the altar. Images are unframed, often varied and original in iconography, showing a 'liveliness of mind and independence of convention' not found in the more formal books. Other members of the group are the Golden Psalter of St. Gall and the Drogo Sacramentary, which made the important innovation of placing most illustrations in inhabited initials. The Byzantine Chludov Psalter represents a comparable tradition in the East (Hinks, 115-119), and the Reims style was also influenced by artists fleeing Byzantine iconoclasm (Berenson, 163). Meyer Schapiro is among those who have proposed that the Psalter copied illustrations from a Late Antique manuscript; apart from an original perhaps of the 4th or 5th centuries, details of the iconography led him to believe in an intermediary Latin model' of after about 700 (Shapiro, 77, 110 and passim). That the miniatures are in large part based on an earlier manuscript, initially disputed by some (Tselos, 334 etc.), seems to have gained general acceptance, though the precise nature and dates of earlier postulated versions vary.

"The style of the outline drawings is dramatic, marked by activity, leaping creatures and fluttering folds of drapery set in faintly sketched landscape backgrounds stretching the full span of a page. Several different episodes may be shown in an illustration, some interpreting the text very literally, indeed over-literally in typical medieval fashion, others building on an association with the text to create elaborate images, including New Testament scenes or motifs from Christian iconography (Pächt, 168-170). Despite the individuality of the style, the hands of eight different artists have been detected" (Wikipedia article on Utrecht Psalter, accessed 08-01-2011).

A beautiful and authoritative study of the manuscript, placing it within context of related works of the time, is van der Horst, Noel, and Wüstefeld (eds.) The Utrecht Psalter in Medieval Art. Picturing the Psalms of David (1996).  The first facsimile of the Utrecht psalter was published as Latin Psalter in the University Library of Utrecht in 1875. A second printed facsimile was published in Graz, Austria, in 1984.

In February 2014 a digital facsimile was available from the University Library of Utrecht at this link.

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The Leiden Aratea Manuscript of Ancient Constellations & the First Printed Facsimile of a Medieval Illuminated Manuscript Circa 818 – 1600

The Leiden Aratea (Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ 79), an illuminated astronomical manuscript, was written and illuminated in Lorraine around 816 CE. It is a copy of a Latin translation from the Greek by the Roman general Claudius Caesar Germanicus (15 BCE - 19 CE), based on the Phaenomena (Φαινόμενα "Appearances") by the Greek didactic poet Aratus of Soli ( Ἄρᾱτος ὁ Σολεύς; circa 315-310 BCE – 240 BCE). The text was supplemented by portions of a second Latin version of Aratus's poem, written by Rufius Festus Avienus in the fourth century CE.

"The Phaenomena appears to be based on two prose works—Phaenomena and Enoptron (Ἔνοπτρον "Mirror", presumably a descriptive image of the heavens)—by Eudoxus of Cnidus, written about a century earlier. We are told by the biographers of Aratus that it was the desire of Antigonus to have them turned into verse, which gave rise to the Phaenomena of Aratus; and it appears from the fragments of them preserved by Hipparchus, that Aratus has in fact versified, or closely imitated parts of them both, but especially of the first.

"The purpose of the Phaenomena is to give an introduction to the constellations, with the rules for their risings and settings; and of the circles of the sphere, amongst which the Milky Way is reckoned. The positions of the constellations, north of the ecliptic, are described by reference to the principal groups surrounding the north pole (Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Draco, and Cepheus), whilst Orion serves as a point of departure for those to the south. The immobility of the earth, and the revolution of the sky about a fixed axis are maintained; the path of the sun in the zodiac is described; but the planets are introduced merely as bodies having a motion of their own, without any attempt to define their periods; nor is anything said about the moon's orbit. The opening of the poem asserts the dependence of all things upon Zeus. From the lack of precision in the descriptions, it would seem that Aratus was neither a mathematician nor observer or, at any rate, that in this work he did not aim at scientific accuracy. He not only represents the configurations of particular groups incorrectly, but describes some phenomena which are inconsistent with any one supposed latitude of the spectator, and others which could not coexist at any one epoch. These errors are partly to be attributed to Eudoxus himself, and partly to the way in which Aratus has used the materials supplied by him. Hipparchus (about a century later), who was a scientific astronomer and observer, has left a commentary upon the Phaenomena of Eudoxus and Aratus, accompanied by the discrepancies which he had noticed between his own observations and their descriptions (Wikipedia article on Aratus, accessed 01-15-2016).

The 99 extant folios (225 x 200 mm) in the Leiden Aratea include 35 full-page miniatures, at least 4 of which are missing. The illustrations include some of the earliest artistic depictions of the constellations as known by the Greeks; however, the artist of the Leiden manuscript made no effort to place the stars accurately according to their positions in the sky, so the images cannot be considered true star charts. These images are presumed to be copies of miniatures made for a Late Antique manuscript, probably written in the mid-fourth or fifth century, and now lost. Written in narrow rustic capitals, the manuscript preserves the writting style and the squarish page format of the Late Antique, and its miniatures, framed as though they were independent paintings, reflect conventions developed in antiquity. Katzenstein suggests that the opening verses of the Leiden Aratea, in which Germanicus presents his work to a member of the imperial family of ancient Rome, may indicate that this copy was originally made for a member of the ruling Carolingian family (perhaps Judith, the second wife of Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne). She also suggests (p. 7) that the manuscript was "almost certainly in northern France, at the monastery of Saint-Bertin at Saint-Omer, by at least the early eleventh century, when it served as a basis of another manuscript of Aratus' poem now in the Bibliothèque Municipale in Boulogne."

Jacob Susius (Suys), Lord of Grysenoordt, about whom I have found little information, acquired the manuscript in Ghent in 1573, according to the Wikipedia. In 1600 the age of only 17, the young and apparently precocious, Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), who later became a founder of international law, used the manuscript as a basis for his remarkable Greek and Latin extensively annotated edition entitled Syntagma Arateorum: Opus poeticae et astronomiae studiosis utilissimum published in Leiden by Christoph van Ravelingen (Raphelengius). Grotius's edition, which reproduced all of the images in the Leiden Aratea as black & white engravings by Jacques de Gheyn II (1565-1629), with letterpress renditions of the Latin text of the manuscript on facing pages, is considered the first printed facsimile edition of an illuminated manuscript. In his edition Grotius included the Greek text of Aratus, Cicero's Aratea with the lacunae supplied in the same meter by Grotius. Following his reproduction of the Carolingian / Late Antique style manuscript Grotius published an elaborate apparatus criticus with notes in Latin, Hebrew and Arabic. He was, however, vague in his citations of previous printed editions or manuscripts that he used. One of the more significant of the Greek texts of Aratus, possibly used by Grotius, is the 14th century Codex Palatinus Graecus 40 at Heidelberg University. In January 2016 the relevant portion of this codex was available in digital facsimile at this link. In January 2016 a digital facsimile of Grotius's 1600 edition was available from Google Books at this link.

The Leiden Aratea was later in the library of Christina, Queen of Sweden, after which it came into the possession of her librarian, the Dutch scholar and manuscript collector Isaac Vossius (1618-89). It was acquired by Leiden University Library as part of their acquisition of Vossius's library in 1690. In January 2016 a complete digital facsimile of the manuscript was available from Leiden University at this link. A scholarly account of the manuscript, The Leiden Aratea: Ancient Constellations in a Medieval Manuscript by Ranee Katzenstein and Emile Savage-Smith, was published by the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1988. In January 2016 this was available online from the Getty Museum at this link.

Aratus's Phaenomena was among the earliest astronomical works to be published in print. It was first issued along with Manilius's Astonomicon by Ugo Rugerius and Doninus Bertochus of Bologna on March 20, 1474 (ISTC No. im00203000); the last edition printed in the 15th century was in Aldus Manutius's edition of a collection of classical works on astronomy issued in Venice, 1499 (ISTC No. if00191000). 


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A Studio for Royal Mayan Scribes in the Ninth Century Circa 825

In 2011 a small painted room was excavated at the extensive ancient Maya ruins of Xultun in the Petén lowlands of northeastern Guatemala, dating to the early 9th century CE. The walls and ceiling of the room were painted with several human figures, and scientists concluded that the room was a studio for royal scribes with "a taste for art and a devotion to the heavens as the source of calculations for the ancient culture’s elaborate calendars." Two walls also displayed a large number of delicate black, red, and incised hieroglyphs. Many of these hieroglyphs, written on the walls like we might write on a blackboard, howed astronomical computations, including at least two tables concerning the movement of the Moon, and perhaps Mars and Venus. Calculations of this type were central to Mayan astrology and rituals, in which astronomy was driven by religion. These writings, which are the earliest writing preserved in the Western hemisphere, may shed light on tables preserved in the Dresden Codex which dates from the 11th century.

"David Stuart, professor of Mesoamerican art and writing at the University of Texas at Austin, who deciphered the glyphs, said, 'This is tremendously exciting,' noting that the columns of numbers interspersed with glyphs inside circles was 'the kind of thing that only appears in one place — the Dresden Codex.'  

"Some of the columns of numbers, for example, are topped by the profile of a lunar deity and represent multiples of 177 or 178, numbers that the archaeologists said were important in ancient Maya astronomy. Eclipse tables in the Dresden Codex are based on sequences of multiples of such numbers. Some texts 'defy translation right now,' he said, and some writing is barely legible even with infrared imagery and other enhancements" (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/11/science/archaeologists-unearth-ancient-maya-calendar-writing.html?hp, accessed 05-10-2012).

William A. Saturno, David Stuart, Anthony F. Aveni, Franco Rossi, "Ancient Maya Astronomical Tables from Xultun, Guatemala," Science  11 May 2012: Vol. 336 no. 6082 pp. 714-717 DOI: 10.1126/science.1221444

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The "Moutier-Grandval Bible," a Masterpiece from the Scriptorium at Tours Circa 830 – 860

One of three surviving illustrated manuscripts of the Bible produced in Tours at the Benedictine abbey of St. Martin in the ninth century, the Moutier-Grandval Bible (British Library Add MS 10546) contains the entire Latin Vulgate text as revised by Alcuin of York. It was probably created during the abbacy of either Adalhard (834-843) or Vivien (843-851) or slightly earlier in the transition period between the abbacies of Fridigus (807-834) and Adalhard. 

Reflective of the scale of book production at Tours during this period, some twenty different scribes worked on this immense volume, which contains 449 folios measuring 495 x 380 mm. The decorated initials are followed by square capitals and uncials which lead into the text script, which is a form of Caroline minuscule, upgraded here by the introduction of some variant letter-forms such as "a"  The four full-page miniatures are derived from classical art.

"The large format, the generous margins, and the richness of decoration reveal the prestigious nature of the manuscripts. The hierarchy of scripts— a large initial, Versal capitals, Uncials and minuscules (in descending order) — are used to great effect.

"The emergence of the Caroline minuscule is one of the great developments in the history of calligraphy. It derived from ancient Roman Half-uncial scripts, incorporating features from local hands. The abbey of Corbie played a major rôle in its evolution, especialy with its Maudramnus script. . . .It is a mature script of enduring quality. It was to be copied and adapted in succeeding centuries by scribes in England, Germany and Italy. Humanist scribes revived it, early in the 15th century, as an appropriate hand for the copying of classical texts. The first Italian printers then adopted it, and it has remained the baiss of Western typography to this day.

"The script of the Moutier Grandval Bible, though very small, is extremely consitent and well formed. Even some of the largers scripts of the Gospels and psalters made at Tours (eg. British Library Harley Mss. 2790 ans 2793) lack its rhythm and structure" (Stan Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance [2009] C5 (p. 51).d). 

From Tours the manuscript passed to the Benedictine abbey of Moutier-Grandval, Jura, canton of Berne, Switzerland (founded in 640 by the abbaye of Luxeuil). During the Swiss reformation in 1534 it was taken by the canons of Moutier-Grandval to Delémont (Delsberg) where they fled and established a new community. This community was  dissolved in 1802 by the concordat between Napoleon Bonaparte and Pope Pius VII. In 1821/22 the manuscript was apparently found at the former chapterhouse at Delémont by children and passed to 'demoiselles Verdat', owners of the property. It was bought from Verdat by Alexis Bennot (d. 1837), advocate, vice-president of the court of Delémont, and sold to Henry Speyr-Passavant (1782-1852), a bookseller from Basel, on March 19, 1822. In 1829 Speyr-Passavant issued a monograph on the manuscript that contained many testimonials as to its authenticity, and what we understand today as overstatements of its importance, by leading experts of the time: Description de la bible écrite par Alchuin, de l'an 778-800, et offerte par lui à Charlemagne le jour de son couronnement à Rome, l'an 801. Par son propriétaire, M. J. H. de Speyr-Passavant. In 1836 Speyr-Passavant sold the manuscript to the British Museum for £750, an enormous price for an illuminated manuscript at the time.

In August 2014 a digital facsimile of the Moutier-Grandval Bible was available from the British Library at this link.

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Gregory the Great Writing, as Depicted in an Ivory Book Cover Circa 850

A carved ivory book cover produced circa 850 depicts Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great) in the Lateran Palace in Rome writing in a codex, with the Holy Spirit, depicted as a dove, whispering in his ear. In a panel below three monk scribes are shown writing. The Carolingian book cover, preserved in Vienna at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, has been attributed to the "Master of the Gregory Tablet."

"Pope Gregory the Great is regarded as the author of the liturgical texts spoken by the priest during Mass in the Roman Catholic Church. Charlemagne later made them obligatory throughout his newly-founded Roman Empire. Legend tells of a scribe who spied the dove of the Holy Spirit whispering the prayers in Gregory’s ear before the saint dictated them to him in a loud voice.

"The genius ivory carver responsible for this work retains the motif of divine inspiration but depicts the pope as an author, pausing to listen to the voice of inspiration before continuing to write. The composition is extended over two storeys and set inside the Lateran Palace. We are eye-witnesses to the divine word becoming text and its subsequent dissemination in the form of books" (from the Kunsthistorische Museum online text, accessed 08-06-2014).

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900 – 1000

The Golden Gospels of Henry VIII: Written by Sixteen Different Scribes 977 – 993

The Morgan Golden Gospels (Morgan MS M.23), also known as The Golden Gospels of Henry VIII, was possibly created for the coronation of Otto III in 983. It was later in the library of Henry VIII of England (No. 952 in the 1542 Inventory of Henry VIII's Upper Library at Winchester Palace.). According to one tradition it was presented to Henry by Pope Leo X (Giovanni Lorenzo di Medici) in 1521 when he conferred upon Henry the title of "Defender of the Faith." In the second half of the sixteenth century the arms of England and an inscription addressed to a prince were added on the verso of the first leaf. It was later in the the library of Duke of Hamilton, and was acquired by J. Pierpont Morgan in the Theodore Irwin collection purchased in 1900.

In "The Morgan Golden Gospels: The Date and Origin of the Manuscript," in Miner (ed) Studies in Art and Literature for Belle Da Costa Greene (1954) 266-79, E. A. Lowe showed through paleographical comparison that it was written and decorated in the Benedictine Abbey of St. Maximin at Trier, Germany during the abbacy of Archbishop Egbert, by at least 16 different scribes. 

The manuscript is extraordinary for several reasons: 

1. It was written on vellum painted various shades of purple using dye made from berries. The leaves vary in color from mauve to slate blue. 

2. It was written in an uncial hand in burnished gold letters. The particular special type of uncial used was "heretofore unrecorded" until this manuscript was studied by E. A. Lowe.

3. It was written by at least sixteen different scribes. (When I wrote this entry in March 2014, this was the largest number of different scribes that I had heard of being identified with the writing of a medieval manuscript.)

4. According to E. A. Lowe, it is "one of the finest, if not the finest purple manuscript in existence."

"The practice of writing on purple membranes goes back at least to classical times, and was not unknown among early Christians even when the Church was strugglinig for existence. This form of ostentation, however, was frowned upon by the Fathers. In his oft-quoted preface to Job, St. Jerome (d. 420) takes occasion to remark: 'Let those who want them have ancient books or books written in gold or silver on purple parchment or in what is commonly called uncial letters—written burdens (I call them) rather than books.' No extant purple manuscript of the Bible written in gold goes back to the time of these Fathers. If we may judge by what remains of such Latin books, the Gospels and the Psalater were the favorites. The oldest of them date from the late fifth and sixth centuries and they are all in letters of silver, gold having been reserved for the N omina scara (dominus, deus, Iesus, etc.) and special passages, titles or opening lines. The Latin manuscripts are devoid of decorative initials and lack all prefatory matter and capitularies; the text is Old-Latin, i.e. pre-Jerome. They are so few in number that I enumerate them here:

"1. Codex Veronensis (b). Verona. Bibl. Capitol. vi. Uncial; saec v ex. Facs: C.L.A., IV. 481.

"2. Codex Neapolitanus, olim Vindobonensis (i). Naples. Bibl. Naz. Lat. 3 (=Vienna 1235). Uncial; saec v ex Facs: C.L.A., III. 399.

"3. Codex Palatinus (e). Trent, Mus. Naz. s.n. (Vienna 1185) _ Dublin, Trin. Coll. 1709 +London, Brit. Mus. Add 40107. Uncial asec. V. Facs: C.L.A., II and IV, 487.

"4. Codex Sarzanensis (j). Sarezzano, Bibl. Parrocchiale s.n. Uncial; saec VI in. Fac: C.L.A., IV. 436aq.

"5. Codex Brixianus (f). Brescia, Bibl. Queriniana s.n. Uncial; saec VI. Facs: C.L.A., III. 281.  

"6. Psalterium Sangermanense. Paris, Bibl. Nat. Lat., 11947. Uncial; saec. VI. Facs: C.L.A., V. 616.

"Greek purple manuscripts were doubtless models for our Latin ones. Only six or seven have survived. They are all, with one exception, in silver letters, and none is apparently older than the sixth century. They are: the Vienna Genesis, the Cotton Genesis, the Codex Rossanensis in the Bibliotheca Arcivescovile at Rossano, the Codex Sinopensis at Paris, written entirely in gold, the Codex Beratinus at Berat in Albania, the Codex Purpureus, with its surviving forty-five folios scattered, thirty-three being in the convent of St. John at Patmos, six in the Vatican, four in the British Museum and two at Vienna.

"The custom of producing purple manuscripts apparently died out in the West during the dark centuries of the early Middle Ages, but we know that it was honored in Northumbria in the late seventh century. It flourished agin in the Corolingian period, as is attested by several surviving manuscripts de luxe. Here and there we encounter magnificent books written on ordinary parchment whose beauty was enhanced by the addition of a few purple leaves. It is important to note that in the oldest purple manuscripts as well as in Carolingian codices purpurei the membranes are dyed, whereas in manuscripts of the Ottonian period the urple leaves, apart from the few imported from Byzantium, are painted, as is the case in our Morgan manuscript.

"The writing of a codex aureus purpureus was no ordinary affair in a scriptorium. It not only involved costly material, it also demanded special skill. For writing with the unusual sticky medium which could take the gold leaf was difficult even for the best of scribes. it stands to reason that such sumptuous manuscripts were intended for special occaions, and we know from ancient sources that they were objects of pride. It is theefore surprising to find no record of our splendid manuscript before the beginning of the last century. There is not a single contemporary marginal note or later entry which could throw any light on the vicissitudes of the volume during the entire period of the Middle Ages" (Lowe, op. cit., 266-68).

Lowe's paper on the Morgan Golden Gospels was reprinted in E. A. Lowe, Palaeographical Papers 1907-1965 II (1972) 389ff.

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1000 – 1100

Production of Medieval Arabic Manuscripts Circa 1025

About 1025 royal patron of the arts, Tamin ibn al Mu'izz ibn Badis, the fourth ruler of the Zirids in Ifriqiya, North Africa, wrote the 'Umbdat alk-kuttab wa 'uddat dhawi al-albab (Book of the Staff of the Scribes and Implements of the Discerning with a Description of the Line, the Pens, Soot Inks, Liq, Gall Inks, Dyeing, and Details of Bookbinding).

This Arabic manuscript, partly written by Ibn Badis, and preserved in Cairo, is a the primary source for information on writing, illuminating, and binding Arabic manuscripts of this period, as well as a resource on the history of chemistry. The portion of the manuscript describing bookbinding is incomplete, lacking details on the techniques of decoration.

The text was translated by Martin Levey as "Mediaeval Arabic Bookmaking and its Relation to Early Chemistry and Pharmacology" and published in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, new series, Vol. 52 (1962) 5-79. Because of the incompleteness of the bookbinding section of ibn Badis's manuscript Levey added an appendix to this work, containing his translation of Abu'l-Abbas Ahmed ibn Muhammed al Sufyani's Sinaat tasfir alkutub wa-hill aldhahab (Art of Bookbinding and Gilding) written in 1619.

Pollard, Early Bookbinding Manuals (1984) no. 2.  See also Bosch, Carswell, Petherbridge, Islamic Bindings & Bookmaking. A Catalogue of an Exhibition, The Oriental Institute, The University of Chicago (1981). The earliest bindings illustrated and described in this exhibition dated from the 13th to 15th centuries.

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More than One Million Charters Survive from the Period of Norman Rule in England 1066 – 1307

More than one million charters survive, either as originals or early copies, from the period of Norman rule in Britain, from 1066 to 1307. Many of these documents are records of property and land transactions written in Latin and recorded by religious or royal institutions. They are fundamental source material for historical research in medieval politics, economics and society.

Through these charters historians can study the rise and fall of military and religious organizations, among many other topics. For example, charters show how the Knights Hospitallers, or the Order of Saint John, a religious organization founded around 1023 to provide care for poor, sick or injured pilgrims to the Holy Land, became a religious and military organization after the Western Christian conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, when it was charged with the care and defense of the Holy Land.

In the late seventeeth and early eighteenth centuries dating medieval charters was one of the problems which motivated Mabillon and Montfaucon to pioneer the science of palaeography. However, at least one million of the Norman charters remain undated, largely due to adminstrative changes introduced by William the Conqueror in 1066. To solve problem of dating the huge number of undated charters Gelila Tilahun and colleagues at the University of Toronto are applying computer-automated statistical techniques with the goal of reducing the time and effort to date them manually, and to improve the accuracy of assigned dates.

"Their approach is to use a subset of some 10,000 charters that are dated and to look for changes in language over time that could be used to date other documents. For example, Tilahun and co say that the phrase “amicorum meorum vivorum et mortuorum”, which means 'of my friends living and dead', was popular between the years 1150 and 1240 but not at other times. And the phrase 'Francis et Anglicis', which is a form of address meaning 'to French and English', was phased out when England lost Normandy to the French in 1204. However, the statistical approach is much more rigorous than simply looking for common phrases. Tilahun and co’s computer search looks for patterns in the distribution of words occurring once, twice, three times and so on. 'Our goal is to develop algorithms to help automate the process of estimating the dates of undated charters through purely computational means,' they say.  

"This approach reveals various patterns which they then test by attempting to date individual documents in this set. They say the best approach is one known as the maximum prevalence technique. This is a statistical technique that gives a most probable date by comparing the set of words in the document with the distribution in the training set.  

"Tilahun and co say their approach also has other applications. For example, the same technique could be used to work out authorship and to weed out forgeries, of which there are known to be a substantial number.  

"So how well does it work in practice? These guys finish their paper with a fascinating anecdote about a medieval English charter that was discovered in a drawer at the library of Brock University near Niagara Falls.  T

"The charter lacked a data so various historians attempted to work out when it was written. The first estimates pointed to the 14th century but these were later revised to the 13th century. Eventually, by comparing the charter to other records, one academic pinned it down to a date between 1235 and 1245.  

"Inspired by the media interest in this charter, Tilahun and co ran the document through their automated maximum prevalence procedure. 'The date estimate we obtained was 1246,' they say, with just a little hint of pride. Not bad!" (MIT Technology Review, 01-16-2013, accessed 01-16-2013).

Gelila Tilahun, Andrey Feuerverger, and Michael Gervers, "Dating medieval English charters," Annals of Applied Statistics VI (2012) 1615-1640.


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The VIDI Project: "Manuscript Innovation in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance" Circa 1075 – 1225

From the website of the Leiden University VIDI Project coordinated by Dr. Erik Kwakkel, selected quotations:

"While the medieval manuscript underwent over a thousand years of development by the hands of a variety of cultures, one particular age stands out in that it arguably introduced more innovations than any other: the period 1075-1225, also referred to as the “Twelfth-Century Renaissance” (Benson and Constable 1991; Haskins 1927; Swanson 1999). While this established term might be historiographically restrictive (Jaeger 2003; see also Thomson 2002), the notion it covers (one cultural movement that unites scholars in different fields and geographical locations) is useful in that it brings under one umbrella a number of related historical events, such as monastic reform, establishment of universities, birth of scholasticism, revival of jurisprudence, and the introduction of Greek and Arabic philosophy. This “Great Awakening” of Europe (Knowles 1962, Chap. 7) gave alacrity and optimism to educated society, whose members sensed they were living in a time different from their immediate past and who contemplated, often explicitly, their role in the course of history and the new present (Abulafia 2006; Jaeger 1994). The term “renaissance of letters” is sometimes used to accentuate that this cultural movement was primarily driven by intellectuals (Damian-Grint 1999; Luscombe 2004; Verger 1995), first those in Northern France, Belgium and Northern Italy, followed suit by kindred spirits in Southern Italy, Germany and Spain. These intellectuals — who lacked cohesion other than a shared background (a “career”, perhaps) in higher education, a deep yearning for knowledge and the sense that classical ideas ought to be revived in their life-time — exchanged ideas through texts and letters, which were disseminated through the main intellectual centers in medieval Europe, monasteries, cathedral schools and universities. Here the new voices, presenting new ideas in a new language of eloquence, were read and heard, and contradicted and expanded upon, by a broad range of intellectuals, from St Bernard of Clairvaux and William of Malmesbury to Peter Abelard and John of Salisbury.

"Overall aim

"The research project described here does not focus on the Twelfth-Century Renaissance as such, nor exclusively on book innovations in this age. Rather, it presents an innovative blend of the two: it aims to show how a changing literary taste, a shift in the use of texts, and a new outlook on the world among intellectuals had a direct and immediate influence on the physical appearance of manuscripts. In an age that is defined by the introduction of an unusually high number of new authors (foreign and home-grown), texts (original Latin works and translations) and genres (natural philosophy, encyclopedia), as well as a new approach to reading and evaluating the written word (through the scholastic method), it became important for readers to own manuscripts that presented texts in an entirely different format than the vehicles they inherited from the Carolingians (9th-11th centuries). This research project aims to show that to meet these demands, a new manuscript was cast in the twelfth century, custom-tailored for use in the new age. Certain elements of this new book have already been examined, such as its script (Derolez 2001, Chap. 3), decoration (Cahn 1996), bookbinding (Sheppard 1995) and the glossing it frequently contains (De Hamel 1984). Furthermore, the contexts of its production and use have been illuminated for some individual copies (Donovan 1993; Gibson 1992; Gullick 1990), regional branches (Kaufmann 1975; Ker 1955; Thomson 1998; Thomson 2006) or monastic houses (Palmer 1998, Chap. 2; Thomson 1982). However, the manuscript as a whole and as a new European book format has to date been largely ignored, as has the historical backdrop of its creation, a pan-European intellectual movement. What has been studied in depth is its successor, a book known as the “Gothic Manuscript”, the handwritten book produced between c. 1200 and c. 1530 that is defined by a new script (Gothic script), certain ornamental motives, standardization in the production stages, and a commercial production environment (Derolez 1996). The proposed project focuses on the “lost” century in the history of medieval written culture, the period between the conclusion of the Carolingian age (c. 1100) and the start of the Gothic period (c. 1200), an epoch in which the physical book is in transition from one prolific format to another. 

"Over the course of the twelfth century, manuscript production and the manner in which books were used had turned over a new leaf: a new script was introduced (known as the “Littera Praegothica”), new decoration emerged (so-called “proto-penwork” flourishing) and new aids for the reader were invented. The latter dimension proves to be of particular importance in understanding the establishment of the new book format, which can, for now, be called the “pregothic manuscript”, for lack of a better term. As this project aims to demonstrate, the majority of book innovations introduced between c. 1100 and c. 1200 were aimed either at improving the speed with which information in the book or on the page could be accessed, or facilitated a better understanding of the complex intellectual discourse that the texts of this age often presented. In short, the new format facilitated an improved “book fluency”, to borrow Kelly’s term, or the ability to read a text (presented on a page) quickly and accurately. While in the late eleventh century book culture nearly completely lacked tools that could rise to these occasions, by the outset of the thirteenth century scribes had a rich palette of aids at their disposal that facilitated comprehension and speedy access, such as pagination, running titles, paragraphs, quotation marks, footnotes, cross references, diagrams, marginal keywords clarifying the argumentation (“first argument”, “second”, “third”, etc.), the use of abbreviated names of authorities as marginal reference tools (“aug” for Augustine, “am” for Ambrose), interplay between various text colors, availability of multiple script types and sizes (“hierarchy of scripts”), and a layout that visually distinguished between main text and “add-ons” (commentary, reference, etc.). These revolutionary “paratextual” features define the pregothic manuscript, the project claims, because they were instrumental for the new breed of European scholars. They prompted what the philosopher Ivan Illich calls a “bookish culture” (Illich 1996) in that they helped to organize knowledge, convert words into arguments and open a dialogue between reader and author." 

"The project will be primarily based on 250 manuscripts written between 1075 and 1225 (the traditional boundaries of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance) present in the so-called Catalogues des Manuscrits Datés, or CMD (Derolez 2009). This source, which has seen rapid growth over the past five years and can now be used for inquiries such as the present, contains hundreds of manuscripts. The inclusion of an item is based on the presence of a scribal colophon stating when a book was made, and each entry includes a transcription of this colophon, as well as one or more images and a rudimentary manuscript description. This unique tool, which, in spite of its excellent suitability for this task, has to date never been used in an historical investigation of this kind, enables us to firmly date the emergence (and disappearance) of certain physical features. The corpus of 250 manuscripts will be expanded with a selection of other manuscripts that can with certainty be tied to a particular year of production, bringing the total to no more than 300 manuscripts. It is anticipated that most of these manuscripts will have been written in Latin. However, the project includes investigations into the application of the new book format in the European vernacular traditions, aspects of which have been probed in Kwakkel, forthcoming 2" (http://www.hum.leiden.edu/lucas/research/news/manuscript-innovation.html, accessed 02-08-2014. References referred to in these quotations were also detailed at this link.)

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1100 – 1200

Medieval Handbook of Applied Arts Including Book Production 1100 – 1120

Folio 1 of Codex 2527, preserved at the Austrian National Library. (View Larger)

Between 1100 and 1120 Benedictine (?) monk Theophilus Presbyter (possibly same as Roger of Helmarshausen) wrote Schedula diversarum artium ("List of various arts") or De diversibus artibus ("On various arts"), containing detailed descriptions of various medieval applied arts, including drawing, painting, manuscript illumination, and bookbinding.

"The work is divided into three volumes. The first covers the production and use of painting and drawing materials (painting techniques, paints, and inks), especially for illumination of texts and painting of walls. The second deals with the production of stained glass and techniques of glass painting, while the last deals with various techniques of goldsmithing. It also includes an introduction into the building of organs. Theophilus contains perhaps the earliest reference to oil paint."

Volume 1 includes directions for making glue and gold leaf.

"Vol. III on metal work covers: openwork sheets of silver and copper for book covers inter alia (chapter 72); die-stamping, also used for book covers (chapter 75); studs for fastening leather covers to the boards (chapter 76) and repoussé work for book covers (chapter 78)" (Pollard, Early Bookbinding Manuals [1984] no. 3).

Theophilus also provides some of the earliest instructions for the use of metalpoints in drawing:

"Indications of the use of metalpoints for artistic purposes, other than those mentioned in connection with manuscripts, were rare until the late fourteenth century, a period which can be associated with the early fourishing of drawing as an important art form. Therefore, instructions for the use of metalpoints by the monk Theophilus, written sometime during the tenth to twelfth centuries, were exceptional. In Diversarum Artium Schedula Theophilus wrote that preparatory designs for windows were delineated upon large boards or 'tables' which had been rubbed with chalk. Over this surface one drew images with lead or tin. Moreover, in his directions for design figures to be incised on ivroy Theophilus recommended that the ivory tablet be covered with chalk, upon which one drew figures  with a piece of lead. These medieval 'grounds' of chalk dust were antecedents of a rudimentary method of preparing metalpoint surfaces with the dust of bones, chalk, or white lead which was described by Cennino in the late fourteen or early fifteenth century, and of a similar practice used during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries for quickly preparing a metalpoint ground for sketching outlines for miniatures or for writing on little ivory sheets.

"It is impossible to determine when metalpoint media were first used for producing sketches and studies in the form and character we now assign to master drawings. But during the fourteenth century both Petrarch and Boccaccio mention drawing with the stylus. The former, in his sonnets to Laura, wrote of Simone (Martini) taking the likeness of his love with the metalpoint and the latter in the Decamerone expressed his admiration for the skill of the incomparable Giotto in the statement that there was nothing in nature which the master could not draw or paint with the stylus, pen, or brush. Although we may hesitate to accept these statements at face value, nevertheless they indicate that the metallic stylus was an accepted instrument for drawing by artists of the late middle ages" (Watrous, The Craft of Old Master Drawings [1957] 4).

The oldest surviving copies of Theophilus's work are Codex 2527 preserved at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, and Codex Guelf 69 preserved at the Herzog-August-Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel.

For centuries after the Middle Ages Theophilus's work was forgotten until the poet, philosopher, and critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing rediscovered the text while he worked as librarian in Wolfenbüttel around 1770.

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The Earliest Extant Document from Europe Written on Paper 1109

The earliest extant European document on paper, possibly written on paper manufactured in Europe, comes from the chancellery of the Norman kings who had occupied the island of Sicily. It is an order dated 1109 in Greek and Arabic concerning a salt mine near Castrogiovanni (now Enna) issued by the countess Adelasia, first wife of Roger I of Sicily. The document is preserved in the state archives at Palermo.

Levey, "Mediaeval Arabic Bookmaking and its Relation to Early Chemistry and Pharmacology," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, new series, Vol. 52, part 4 [1962] 10.

Carter, Invention of Printing in China 2nd ed (1955) 137.

Frugoni, Inventions of the Middle Ages (2007) 62, reproducing the document as figure 41.

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Printing in Clay by the Typographic Principle in Germany in 1119 1119

The Prüfening dedicatory inscription (Prüfeninger Weiheinschrift), a high medieval inscription created in 1119 in Prüfening Abbey, a former Benedictine monastery, in Regensburg, Germany, was produced by stamping individual carved wooden Roman square capitals into clay, using the typographic principle in which identical pre-formed letters were repeated. This may be the earliest precisely datable application of the typographic principle in Europe.

The inscription, attached to one of the main pillars of the church,  

"reports the consecration act of the monastery in honour of St. George, carried out by the two bishops Otto of Bamberg and Hartwig of Regensburg. The inscription plate specifies the year of the act and, by implication, its own date as 1119 (•MCXVIIII•). It was made of baked clay, painted over in an alternating, red white pattern, and is approximately 26 cm wide, 41 cm high and 3 cm thick, with a crack running through its entire breadth. The sunk letterforms are the classical capitalis monumentalis or Roman square capitals. . . .

"The unusual sharpness of the inscription letters has long led epigraphists to believe that they were not carved by hand into the clay. The typographic character of the inscription was recently demonstrated in a systematic examination of the text body by the typesetter and linguist Herbert Brekle. His findings confirm that the text was produced with a printing method similar to that of the Phaistos Disc: The 17-line text was created by pressing individual, pre-formed stamps (probably made of wood) into the soft clay in a way that, for each letter which occurred more than once, the same letter stamp was re-used, thereby producing identical imprints throughout the text. Thus, the essential criterion for typographic text production was met, namely the repeated use of identical types for a single character. In applying this technique, it is not relevant that the Prüfening inscription was made by stamping letters into the clay and not − as later practiced by Gutenberg − by printing on paper, since neither the technical execution nor the print medium define movable type printing, but rather the criterion of type identity:

"The defining criterion which a typographic print has to fulfill is that of the type identity of the various letter forms which make up the printed text. In other words: each letter form which appears in the text has to be shown as a particular instance ('token) of one and the same type which contains a reverse image of the printed letter.

"By projecting the text letters one upon the other (e.g., all 'A's onto one another) at high magnification, the consistent type identity of the dedicatory inscription could be demonstrated beyond doubt. An additional indication that its creator had worked with reusable types is the marked tendency of some letters to tilt to the right or left; in those case the artisan apparently did not succeed in setting up the letter stamps completely parallel to the lateral borderline of the plate. The evidence of the skewed letters, but most importantly the observation that the type token criterion was met throughout the text prove the 'typographic character of the Prüfening dedicatory inscription with certainty.'

"A fragment of another inscription plate found close to the monastery indicates that the Prüfening abbey inscription did not remain an isolated phenomenon, but that at least locally the typographic production method was applied more frequently" (Wikipedia article on Prüfening inscription, accessed 10-31-2012). 

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Origins of the Paris Book Trade Circa 1170

"It is generally accepted that by c. 1170 at latest there were many glossed books of the Bible being made in Paris, and the surviving manuscripts display characteristics indicative of commercial production.

"The characteristics include simple matters of method and routine; the regularization (after two or three decades' experimentation) of the juxtaposition of gloss and text. It is not just the fact that these conventions emerged but also their rapid diffusion that, together, suggest centralized production in quantity—the concentrated and repetitive output associated with urban commercial production. There is even an informal and quite early (c. 1170?) accounting, jotted down on the back pastedown of a Parisian glossed Book of Numbers owned by Ralph of Reims, recording payment for books completed and the purchase of parchment for books yet to be written: 'Pentateuch, Job, Twelve Prophets, Matthew, and Luke, with parchment for the Psalter and the Epistles and note (?): 28 livres and 10 sous'; this is a direct indication of commercial production.

"If in the twelfth century there was no booktrade in the way it developed later in Paris; nevertheless there was clearly a structure of some sort, capable of producing a significant number of large books with complex layouts. We find most attractive the hypothesis that the large urban abbeys of Paris, and specifically the abbey of St-Victor, fostered the growth of the city's commercial booktrade by engaging lay scribes and illuminators to make manuscripts, when necessary. St-Victor's growth among Parisian abbeys to the first rank in importance in the middle of the twelfth century is well documented. By providing work for lay artisans, the abbey would in effect have encouraged the development of independent métiers. In this context, a well-known passage from the Liber ordinis of St-Victor (c. 1139) deserves to be cited once again: 'All writing,whether done inside the abbey or out, pertains to the office of the armarius [librarian]; he should provide the scribes with parchment and whatever else is necessary for writing, and he is responsible for hiring those who write for pay'. The implication is double: there were scribes for hire in Paris before the middle of the twelfth century, and St-Victor hired them (R. Rouse & M. Rouse, Manuscripts and their Makers. Commercial Book Producers in Medieval Paris 1200-1500 I [2000] 26).

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1200 – 1300

Banning the Use of Paper for Legal Documents 1231

From his book, De arte venandi cum avibus (The art of hunting with birds), a portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, flanked by a falcon. (View Larger)

In 1231 Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Sicily, from his court in Palermo, banned the use of paper for notarial documents, believing it to be less permanent than parchment or vellum. The use of paper in the chanceries was mainly restricted to drafts, registers, and minutes.

Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and Middle Ages (1990) 12.

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The Earliest Surviving German Document Written on Paper 1246 – 1247

The earliest surviving manuscript on paper written in Germany is the register of Albert Beham, the dean of the cathedral in Passau, dating from 1246 or 1247.

Bischoff, Latin Palaeography. Antiquity and the Middle Ages (1990) 12.

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More than 1000 Birch-Bark Documents Have Been Excavated from Mud in Veliky Novgorod, Russia 1250

On October 18, 2014 David M. Herszenhorn published an article in The New York Times entitled "Where Mud is Archaeological Gold, Russian History Grew on Trees." The article described and illustrated examples of the over 1000 documents, including many letters, written on birch-bark that were excavated from the mud of the Russian city, Veliky Novgorod or Novgorod in Russia. The city, founded in the late 10th century CE, has been the site of numerous invaluable archaeological finds excavated from mud. The large number of documents, which survived since birch-bark does not decay in mud, provide a window into diverse aspects of society in the region during the Middle Ages.

In October 2014 a Russian website (gramoty.ru) concerning the birch-bark documents was available at this link.

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139 Professional Scribes Are Working in Bologna 1265 – 1268

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By the thirteenth century the production of books moved from the exclusive province of monastic scriptoria to civilian professional scribes in cities, especially around universities. 139 professional scribes, including two women, are known to have worked in Bologna, Italy, site of the University of Bologna, from 1265-68.

Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and Middle Ages [1990] 224, note no. 4.

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1300 – 1400

The Use of Manuscript Rolls in the Middle Ages Circa 1304 – 1340

Folio 323r of Codex Manesse: a portrait of Reinmar dictating poetry scribes, one of which bears a wax tablet. (View Larger)

The Manesse Codex, or Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, was produced in Zürich, Switzerland at the request of the Manesse family during the first half of the 14th century. It is the single most comprehensive source for the texts of love songs in Middle High German, representing 140 poets, several of whom were famous rulers, and it includes 137 miniature portraits of the poets with their armorial crests.

"The term for these poets, Minnesänger, combines the words for 'romantic love' and 'singer', reflecting the content of the poetry, which adapted the Provençal troubadour tradition to German. . . . The entries are ordered approximately by the social status of the poets, starting with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, Kings Conradin and Wenceslaus II, down through dukes, counts and knights, to the commoners" (Wikipedia article on Manesse Codex, accessed 03-09-2009)

The codex had an obscure history before it belonged to the Baron von Hohensax, and the Swiss writer Melchior Goldast published excerpts of its didactic texts. After 1657 the codex was in the French royal library (now the Bibliothèque nationale de France), where in 1815 the manuscript was studied by Jacob Grimm. In 1888 it was sold to the German government following following a public subscription headed by William I and Otto von Bismarck and placed in the Bibliotheca Palatina of Heidelberg. Today it is preserved in Heidelberg University Library.

The price the German government paid for the codex in 1888— £18,000— was the highest price ever paid for a book up to that date. The purchase price was paid to bookseller and publisher Karl Trübner who paid the money to the Fifth Earl of Ashburnham in return for 166 manuscripts, of which 99 had been stolen from French libraries by Guglielmo Libri and sixty-six had been stolen from the Bibliothèque nationale de France by Jean-Baptiste Barrois. This deal, which cost the French library £6000 plus the Codex Manesse, had been accomplished largely by the determination and industry of the adminstrative director of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Léopold Delisle, who by painstaking research over more than twenty years had proven Libri's and Barrois's thefts of the manuscripts, and had lobbied effectively for their return to France.

In February 2014 a digital facsimile of the Codex Manesse was available at this link.

Of particular interest for book history is the portrait of Reinmar dictating poetry on folio 323 available at this link. The poet dictates to a notary who records the poems on wax tablets. A woman sits opposite the notary writing down the text on a roll draped across her lap—a depiction of writing in the medieval roll manuscript format, of which very few examples have survived. It is also a record of the use of wax tablets at this relatively late date.

Rouse & Rouse, Authentic Witnesses. Approaches to Medieval Texts and Manuscripts (1991) 23, and plate 5.

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The Earliest Surviving English Paper Codex, and the Earliest Recorded Use of Paper in England 1307 – 1308

On March 28, 2014 British antiquarian bookseller Justin Croft drew the attention of the Ex-Libris newsgroup to a blog post of his dated October 26, 2012 in which he discussed the earliest surviving paper record in England, the "Red Register" of King's Lynn, a register of deeds enrolled in the seaport town of King's Lynn from 1307 to 1372. Croft had the opportunity to examine the book when he visited the borough archives still housed in the King's Lynn Town Hall.

Croft's post struck a cord with me when I searched this database and discovered that my entry for the first use of paper in England was a pathetic undocumented single sentence that said, inaccurately, "The first recorded use of paper in England was in 1309." This entry, numbered 314 in the database, was one of my earliest short notes, written when I began attempting to broaden the scope of the data beyond the history of computing, networking and telecommunications, to cover the history of media, for the simple present tense timeline in my 2005 printed book From Gutenberg to the Internet. That timeline was an expansion of the timeline that I wrote for my printed book Origins of Cyberspace (2002). In 2005 I had no expectation that the project would become a website, or that it would reach anywhere near the extent it had reached in 2014. And though I had revised, expanded, or otherwise corrected many of those original overly brief and unsubtantiated notes since 2005, for some reason this relatively meaningless entry had been left essentially in its original state. Therefore I took the opportunity that Croft's post offered to expand this entry. Croft wrote:

"In the early fourteenth century England’s writers habitually wrote, as we all know, with quill pens on sheets of parchment or vellum. And that’s true of writers in a variety of fields: in the church, the law courts, or in royal and local government. Here in Lynn, in 1307 we find a medieval writer (or probably writers) writing on quires of paper with the clear intention of binding them up as a book. The paper could not, of course, have been English: the first recorded English paper mill dates from only the 1490s, when a Hertford paper maker supplied paper to the printer William Caxton.

"It was only after I returned home to Faversham (which coincidentally has a pretty mean collection of medieval charters) that I realised just how early the Lynn paper book was. In fact, consulting the endlessly-useful classic by Michael Clanchy From Memory to Written Record, I found that: ‘The earliest records made in England on paper come most appropriately from major seaports: a register from King’s Lynn beginning in 1307 and another from Lyme Regis in 1309’.

"The King’s Lynn Red Register is then, the earliest surviving English paper book. I realise that, had I been paying attention, I would have noticed it even has its own blue plaque outside the town-hall, though it doesn’t tell us why it’s important.

"It’s a common (and fair) assumption that paper books have something to do with printing. Books are printed on paper. There are a few black-tulip exceptions, usually very early (a few copies of the Gutenberg Bible and other incunables, including Caxtons, and of course a few copies of the wonderful Kelmscott Chaucer and other private press books; late revivals of vellum printing). There’s also a co-incidence of chronology: paper making, especially in England, takes off with the advent of printing. Conversely, we tend to think of medieval manuscripts as written on parchment or vellum.

"On reflection I can now think of several examples of English medieval manuscripts on paper, mostly urban or legal registers from the fifteenth century (there’s even one here in Faversham). A few date from the period before printing, but very few from the fourteenth century. That makes the 1307 Red Register at Lynn truly remarkable.

"It speaks of a confident leap-of-faith on behalf of the town government to make an important civic record on a material with such a short track-record in practice. Of course we know that Chinese and Islamic cultures used paper long before, but the first paper mills in Europe were not active before the 1270s (in Italy; where else?). Urban records were not mere shopping lists: they were the documents used by powerful ruling elites to protect the data which allowed them to carry out their day to day business in the knowledge that they were acting correctly and lawfully. Town documents were jealously guarded and treated with all the care and respect that a major business corporation would use to maintain and back-up its databases. That is one reason why medieval town records have such a good rate of survival.

"To experiment with paper as a record-keeping technology was a brave and forward-looking move in 1307. Probably before its time, since it didn’t catch on for so long. Paper would turn out to have all kinds of advantages over parchment: it can be less bulky, it allows for much more rapid writing in new, faster hands, and ultimately it would become cheaper. By 1500, except for deeds and charters, paper would become dominant in record-keeping of all kinds. Perhaps most significantly, in the long run, it provided a perfect surface for printing."

In Pragmatic Literacy, East and West 1200-1330, edited by R. H. Britnell (1997) Geoffrey Martin wrote in a chapter entitled "English Town Records", "The relatively high cost of parchment seems to have limited the scope of personal archives. It was some time before paper became a cheap alternative, and its use was limited in the towns before the end of the fifteenth century. The earliest example is a register of deeds enrolled at King's Lynn, from 1307, followed by the Husting court book of Lyme Regis in Dorset, a similar register begun 1308. The so-called Little Red Book of Bristol and the Red Paper Book of Colchester, a paper volume also original bound in red leather, are other examples from the first and second halves of the century respectively." (p. 130.)

Perhaps it is not coincidental that both of these early English registers on paper were created in seaport towns in which trade must have been very active with continental regions where paper was in production. By the twelfth century paper was being produced in the Iberian peninsula and in Italy. Paper production did not reach France or Germany until mid to late 14th century. Therefore it is likely that the paper used for both the King's Lynn and Lyme Regis registers came from Italy or Spain. The first papermill in England arrived very late compared to continental developments. John Tate operated the first English papermill from 1496 to 1507, and the first book printed in England on paper made in England was printer Wynkyn de Worde's first English edition of Bartholomaeus Anglicus's De proprietatibus rerum in the English translation of John Trevisa. According to the ISTC, this undated edition was issued "circa 1496."

The Red Register of King's Lynn was transcribed by Robert F. Isaacson and edited by Holcombe Ingleby for publication in King's Lynn in 1922 in a 2 volume work entitled appropriately, The Red Register of King's Lynn. Consisting of mainly deeds and wills, it provides invaluable records of an important town in the fourteenth century. However, from the book history standpoint the key element of this register is its early use of paper as a recording medium.

(This entry was last revised on March 29, 2014.)


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The Oldest Known English Public Advertisement Circa 1340

Portions of an early poster written on parchment by a professional Gothic scribe were found as part of the stiffening inside a bookbinding made in Oxford about 1340. 

"The fragments come from a single sheet, written on one side only in a whole range of different Gothic scripts, and they are stained and weathered. The supposition is that the poster was once tacked up outside a stationer's shop (presumably in Oxford) until it became obsolete or was replaced and so was taken down and stored as a useful scrap of thick parchment. One day its pieces proved ideal for padding out a binding, and thus the oldest known English public advertisement has come down to us. It shows short specimens of twelve different scripts for different classes of liturgical manuscript, from a large choir psalter to little portable processionals with music. There are similar Continental specimens from the fifteenth century, advertising the range of hands available from the scribes Herman Stepl, of Münster in Westphalia, for example, or Robert of Tours in the diocese of Nantes. Presumably the customer came into the shop, looked over the patterns as one might a menu in a takeaway restaurant, and left an order for a particular script" (de Hamel, Medieval Craftsmen. Scribes and illuminators [1992] 39 and plate 31).

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Writing Zilbaldone Circa 1350

The practice of writing zibaldone, or collections of notes in paper codices of small and medium format, such as we might call commonplace books, began in the mid 14th century.

"Rather than miniatures, zibaldone often incorporate the author's sketches. Zibaldone were in cursive scripts (first chancery minuscule and later mercantile minuscule) and contained what Armando Petrucci, the renowned palaeographer, describes as 'an astonishing variety of poetic and prose texts.' Devotional, technical, documentary and literary texts appear side-by-side in no discernible order. The juxtaposition of gabelle taxes paid, currency exchange rates, medicinal remedies, recipes and favourite quotations from Augustine and Virgil portrays a developing secular, literate culture. By far the most popular of literary selections were the works of Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio: the 'Three Crowns' of the Florentine vernacular traditions.These collections have been used by modern scholars as a source for interpreting how merchants and artisans interacted with the literature and visual arts of the Florentine Renaissance" (Wikipedia article on commonplace book, accessed 01-16-2011).

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Routine Everyday Messages Inscribed on Rune-Sticks Circa 1350

Since 1955 670 runic inscriptions on wood dating from the fourteenth century were excavated from the medieval city at Bryggen, Bergen, Norway. Excavation took place after a disastrous fire swept through a historic waterfront district. Many of the Bryggen inscriptions are letters and everyday messages cut into small wooden sticks or tablets which were easily transported. 

Before these inscriptions were excavated there was doubt whether the runes were ever used for anything else than inscriptions of names and solemn phrases. The Bryggen find showed that runes were used for routine, everyday messages in this area, and presumably also in other parts of Scandinavia. Another important aspect of the find was that many of the inscriptions dated as recently as the 14th century. Prior to the discoveries at Bryggen it was believed that the use of runes in Norway had died out long before. Since these findings, many more runic inscriptions of this type have been found in Norway.

"There is some evidence for rune-stick letters in Scandinavian contexts as far back as the ninth century. It is possible that the early Anglo-Saxons made extensive use of rune-sticks for practical communications, bu the absence of even one surviving example makes it difficult to proceed beyond speculation. We do have some evidence for familiarity with the runic alphabet among the educated classes of society. For instance, the solution to certain Anglo-Saxon riddles depends upon knowledge of runes . . . ." (Kelly, Anglo-Saxon lay society and the written word," IN: Mckitterick (ed) The Uses of Literarcy in Early Mediaeval Europe [1990] 37).

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Scribes in London First Organize September 23, 1373

The "Writers of Court and Text Letter" or "Writers of the Court Letter" delivered a petition to the Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, to establish a monopoly of their profession by forming a corporate body whose members are governed and protected. 

"They were first mentioned, with the limners and barbers, as an accepted professional class as early as 1357. Seven years later, in 1364, the Writers doubtless considered that the general direction for the good government of all the crafts in the City of London applied to them because a copy of the enrollment of that article is the second entry in their records" (http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=35888, accessed 02-28-2009).

♦ In 1617 group secured a Royal Charter from James I as the Worshipful Company of Scriveners.

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The Relative Costs of the Components of Medieval Manuscripts 1374 – 1375

"To give us an idea of the costs of making manuscript books in the Middle Ages we have an example of the costs incurred in making a copy of Henri Bohic's voluminous Commentaires, which Etienne de Conty had made in 1374 and 1375 by the copyist Guillaume du Breuil. It is a work of two large in-folio volumes, one with 370 leaves and the other with 388. A note on the inside of each volume tells us that the work cost 62 livres and 11 sous in Parisian money. This sum was made up of the following:

- The copyist's salary: 31 livres 5 sous
- The purchase and preparation of the parchment, including the mending of holes: 18 livres 18 sous
- Six initial letters with gold: 1 livre 10 sous
- Other illuminations, in red and blue: 3 livres 6 sous
- The hiring of an exemplar for the copyist provided by Martin, Carmelite clerk: 4 livres
- Repairs to holes in the margins, and stretching: 2 livres
- Binding: 1 livre 12 sous

These manuscripts are now kept in the Bibliothèque municipale d’Amiens, shelfmark 365" (blog.Pecia: Le manuscrit medieval, 5 novembre 2007).

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1400 – 1450

The First Dated Example of Poggio's Humanistic Script 1408

The first dated example of the humanistic script invented by the Italian scholar, writer and humanist, Poggio Bracciollini, is the copy of Cicero's Epistles to Atticus written in formal "antiqua" and preserved in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Berol. Hamilton lat. 166). This carries the subscription "Scriptsit Poggius anno domini MCCCCVIII a mundi vero creatione VI mil. et DCVII." 

Regarding the origin of Poggio's humanistic script, Ullman (p. 59) mentioned the manuscript of De verecundia that appears to have been written by Poggio between 1402-03 for its author, the humanist and man of letters Coluccio Salutati.  Thus, this manuscript is "the very first datable example of humanistic script" (Morison, Politics and Script. . . . Barker ed. [1972] 267). Unlike the Cicero, however, the date of De Verecundia is based on scholarly argument rather than concrete evidence.

Ullman, The Origin and Development of Humanistic Script (1974)  27, 59.

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The Most Extensively Portrayed Late Medieval Scribe and Author Circa 1449 – 1472

Detail of painting showing presentation by Jean Miélot to "Philip the Good," Duke of Burgundy, of his translation of the Traité sur l'oraison dominicale. Miniature by Jean le Tavernier, 1454-7, Brussels.  Please click to see entire image.

Detail of grisaille style painting of Jean Miélot writing in his scriptorium. Please click to see entire image.

Detail from a fine portrait of Miélot, by an unknown miniaturist.  Please click to view entire image.

During his employment from 1449 to 1467 as secretary to Philip the GoodDuke of Burgundy, the Burgundian author, translator, manuscript illuminator, scribe and priest Jean Miélot (Miéllot) was primarily engaged in the production of deluxe illuminated manuscripts for Philip's library. Miélot translated many works, both religious and secular, from Latin or Italian into French, and wrote or compiled books himself; he also composed verse. Between his own writings and his translations Miélot produced some twenty-two works while working for Philip, the leading bibliophile in Northern Europe at the time. In the years after his death in 1472 many of Miélot's works appeared in print, influencing the development of French prose style. 

While Miélot usually personally wrote out Philip's copies of his various writings, and was responsible for creating a "minute" or dummy of the planned book showing the subject and location of the various miniatures and illuminated letters, Miélot would not have had the time to produce the miniatures for so many manuscripts, and it is likely that he was influential in allocating commissions to various miniaturists who created the manuscript illuminations. Because the miniaturists were indebted to him for the work, and because of the Burgundian fashion at the time for presentation miniatures, in which the author is shown presenting the book to the duke or other patron, an unusually large number of portraits of Miélot as author and scribe appear in the ducal copies of Miélot's works. 

"Philip the Good was the leading bibliophile of Northern Europe, and employed a number of scribes, copyists and artists, with Miélot holding a leading position among the former groups.... His translations were first produced in draft form, called a 'minute', with sketches of the images and illuminated letters. If this was approved by the Duke, after being examined and read aloud at court, then the final de luxe manuscript for the Duke's library would be produced on fine vellum, and with the sketches worked up by specialist artists. Miélot's minute for his Le Miroir de l'Humaine Salvation survives in the Bibliothèque Royale Albert I in Brussels, which includes two self-portraits of him richly dressed as a layman. The presentation portrait to La controverse de noblesse, a year later, shows him with a clerical tonsure. His illustrations are well composed, but not executed up to the standard of manuscripts for the court. His text, on the other hand, is usually in a very fine Burgundian bastarda blackletter script, and paleographers can recognise his hand" (Wikipedia article on Jean Miélot, accessed 11-04-2013). 

In Miélot's translation of the Traité sur l'oraison dominicale produced for Philip between 1454 and 1457, and preserved in the Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels (Ms. 9082 fol. 1r) there is a miniature by the Flemish painter Jean Le Tavernier showing Miélot presenting the manuscript to Philip. An excellent reproduction of this appears in Wilson & Wilson, A Medieval Mirror (1984) p. 49. About 1456. Miélot completed his manuscript compilation of the Miracles de Notre Dame for Philip. In this manuscript, preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Flemish artist Jean Le Tavernier, an expert in the grisaille technique of manuscript illumination, included a splendid grisaille portrait of Jean Miélot writing in his scriptorium, probably in the ducal library. The portrait, which appears on folio 19r, includes very detailed renderings of the room's furnishings, and the writer's materials, equipment, and activity. Still another fine portrait of Miélot, by an unknown miniaturist, appears in Brussels Royal Library, MS 9278, fol. 10r.

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1450 – 1500

Fust and Schöffer Publish the First Book Set in Fere-Humanistica or Gotico-Antiqua Types October 6, 1459

The first page of Guillelmus Duranti's Rationale divinorum officiorum. (View Larger)

On October 6, 1459 printers Fust and Schöffer of Mainz completed their edition of Rationale divinorum officiorum by Guillelmus Duranti (Durandus)— a work explaining the meaning of the various services of the Catholic church and the ceremonies used in them. The folio volume has one large (thirteen-line) capital letter, and two smaller capitals printed in two colors— red and dull blue-gray, and a number of small capitals mostly printed in red, though some were omitted by the printer and put in by hand. All surviving copies are printed on vellum except for one on paper preserved at Munich.

The 1459 Durandus was the first book printed in type based on rounded script— less formal than the Gothic Textura or Textualis bookhand, on which Gutenberg and Schöffer based their first types.

"The type cut by Peter Schoeffer on the model of this hand is rounder and more open that Textura, the ascenders are more pronounced and give more white on the page, 'there is a greater differentiation of letters and therefore inscribed legibility'. The letter 'shares some characteristics of the Renaissance and others of the Middle Ages. Hence it has been called the Fere-humanistica or Gotico-antiqua. . . .The hand is gothic but with considerable roman tendencies' (A.F. Johnson Type Designs, 1959.) It was a letter much copied in Germany; less so outside. It was taken as a pattern by William Morris for his Troy and Chaucer types" (Berry & Poole, Annals of Printing [1966] 14).

ISTC  No.: id00403000. In November 2013 a digital facsimile was available from the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek at this link.

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Leon Battista Alberti Describes "The Alberti Cipher" 1467

An engraved portrait of Leon Battista Alberti. Engraved by G. Benaglia and published in the 18th century.

An Alberti cipher disk.

Italian author, artist, architect, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher, cryptographer and general Renaissance humanist polymath Leon Battista Alberti wrote De Cifris describing the first polyalphabetic substitution with mixed alphabets and variable period. Compared to previous ciphers of the period, the Alberti Cipher was impossible to break without knowledge of the method. This was because the frequency distribution of the letters was masked and frequency analysis - the only known technique for attacking ciphers at that time - was no help. To facilitate the encryption process employed the first mechanical device, known as the Alberti cipher disk, also called formula. 

The cipher disk "is made up of two concentric disks, attached by a common pin, which can rotate one with respect to the other.

"The larger one is called Stabilis [stationary or fixed], the smaller one is called Mobilis [movable]. The circumference of each disk is divided into 24 equal cells. The outer ring contains one uppercase alphabet for plaintext and the inner ring has a lowercase mixed alphabet for ciphertext.

"The outer ring also includes the numbers 1 to 4 for the superencipherment of a codebook containing 336 phrases with assigned numerical values. This is a very effective method of concealing the code-numbers, since their equivalents cannot be distinguished from the other garbled letters.

" The sliding of the alphabets is controlled by key letters included in the body of the cryptogram" (Wikipedia article on Alberti cipher disk, accessed 03-30-2012).

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Three Ways that Printing Changed Manuscript Culture Circa 1470

"Having attempted to define some features of the scribal culture that dominated that area of Europe which produced the printing press, I should like in conclusion to note three aspects of the book and its use that printing, for better or worse, drastically altered. . . . Print as an Agent of Change; its author [Elizabeth Eisenstein] curiously, does not treat these three aspects of change.

"(1) With the growth of print as the normal medium of the page, the main medieval vehicle for relating new thought to inherited tradition disappears— namely, the gloss and the practice of glossing. To be sure sure glossed books like the commentaries on the Decretum, the Liber sextus or Nicholas de Lyra on the scriptures are often printed; but the printed book is not itself an object in which one writes long glosses. Perusal of Chatelain, Paléographie des classiques latin (Paris, 1884-92), will uncover pages of Virgils, Lucans, Juvenals and Horaces, the set texts of the trivium, covered with interlinear and marginal glosses of all dates. The manuscript books had in fact been laid out to be glossed, namely, with the text in large letters down the center of the page, surrounded by white space. In contrast, one can think of only a handful of printed books in which the page has been set up in type to be glossed by hand. What effect this had on processes of thought, methods of instruction, and the structured comparison of new ideas to old, would be interesting to work out.

"(2) With the advent of print the book becomes a monolithic unit, compared to its handwritten predecessor. Medieval books, particularly those individualistic owner-produced volumes of the fifteenth century, are frequently made up of numerous pieces varying from one to several quires in length, which were initially kept in loose wrappers and were bound together by the institution which inherited the volume. A person interested in a given text could copy out what he wanted and no more: thus, of the two hundred manuscripts of the Lumen anime, only half can be classified according to one of three restructurings they represent, while the other half are all hybrids, adaptations to the needs and desires of the individual owner-producer. In contrast, although printed books are on occasion copied by hand or sections of them are copied out, the average printed-book library is comprised of whole books. Not until the advent of the Xerox machine were individuals again easily able to make up books in sections or produce tailor-made collections. It would be interesting to know what effect this had on patterns of reading.

"(3) Up to about 1450, the main vehicle par excellence for painting was the manuscript book: the monuments of medieval painting are in Gospel books, Psalters, Pontificals, Breviaries and Books of Hours. The advent of printing forces painting out of the book. It is a desperate wrench. Owners of incunabula have them filled with beautiful miniatures, printers hire illuminators to adorn books with initials and frontispieces, or to water-color woodcuts printed in Books of Hours, but it is a losing battle. By 1500-1520, the Book of Hours as the fifteenth century knew it is in the death throes of mannerism and sterility. With the exception of the producers of woodcuts—Holbein, Duerer, Pieter Breughel, all of whom also painted—not a single major artist  thereafter did his major work in the medium of the printed book. While panel painting as an art form clearly antedates the invention of printing, the transition to the printed page must have encouraged the growth of the new medium which was so important to Netherlandish art in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries" (Rouse & Rouse, "Backgrounds to Print: Aspects of the Manuscript Book in Northern Europe of the Fifteenth Century," Authentic Witnesses: Approaches to Medieval Texts and Manuscripts [1991] 465-66).

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Scribe Filippo de Strata's Polemic Against Printing August 1473 – December 1474

Between August 1473 and December 1474, during the short time that Nicolò Marcello held the office of Doge, or chief magistrate, of Venice, Filippo de Strata, a monk and scribe in the Benedictine community of San Cipriano in Murano, addressed a polemic against printing to the Doge. Printing had only recently been introduced to the city of Venice, but evidently the scribal community already felt threatened by the new technology, and its lower costs, though its impact may not have been as dramatic as Filippo's polemic would imply. One senses considerable exaggeration in Filippo's protests, especially since the texts printed in Venice by this time were primarily editions of what we would call tame classical authors, except perhaps for Ovid. That printers undercut the prices of hand-written manuscripts was a very real issue, and perhaps the central motivation of Filippo's florid protest, more than his claim that printed books were sources of moral corruption. Needless to say, Filippo's objections to the new technology were, for all intents and purposes, ignored.

The text of Filippo's polemic is preserved in Venice's Biblioteca Marciana (Italian Manuscripts, Class I, 72 (5074) folios iv.-2r. It was translated from the Latin by Shelagh Grier and issued in 1986 by the Hayloft Press as a pamphlet with an introduction by Martin Lowry in an edition of 350 copies. Here is the translation. Throughout the translation scribes are called "writers."

"May you hold sway for ever, Marcellan house, now seated on the throne, exalted as you deserve. Doge Nicolo, you will prepare celestial realms for yourself, where you may disport yourself joyously.

"You have lived a holy life as a private citizen, keeping yourself to yourself; now you will live a just life as Doge, I am sure, living for the people also. You have helped many by distributing largesse within your means; now it will be fiting for you to assist larger numbers from your abundance. In the past you have prayed on your own for the peace of those dear to you; from now even the least of men should pray for you as Doge. With these frank verses, wending through no long preambles and circumlocutions, I respectfully present my small gift. Accept this little book which I am sending to a great man, with, I pray, a favourable disposition, with a gift or with a reward. You will read the holy writings of the saints, which I have recast in the verancular tongue, telling of the deeds of the Fathers.

" I know that you always hate printed books crammed with the foolishness of common folk, and that you follow sound precepts. The things I have described do not apply to you, but to the utterly uncouth types of people who have driven reputable writers from their homes. Among the latter this servant of yours has been driven out, bewailing the damage which results from the printers' cunning. They shamnelessly print, at a negligible price, material which may, alas, inflame impressionable youths, while a true writer dies of hunger. Cure (if you will) the plague which is doing away with the laws of all decency, and curb the printers. They persist in their sick vices, setting Tibullus in type, while a young girl reads Ovid to learn sinfulness. Through printing, tender boys and gentle girls, chaste without foul stain, take in whatever mars purity of mind or body; they encourage wantoness, and swallow up huge gain from it.

" O God! O piety! O holy venerable faith! What, my lords, are you doing? Your pledges come to nothing, as long as what is pleasant is more pleasing to you than what is honourable. They basely flood the market with anything suggestive of sexuality, and they print the stuff at such a low price that anyone and everyone procures it for himself in abundance. And so it happens that asses go to school. The printers guzzle wine and, swamped in excess, bray and scoff. The Italian writer lives like a beast in a stall. The superior art of authors who have never known any other work than producing well-written books in banished. This glory pertains to you, Doge: to lay low the printing-presses. I beg you to do this, lest the wicked should triumph.

"Writing indeed, which brings in gold for us, should be respected and held to be nobler than all goods, unless she has suffered degradation in the brothel of the printing presses. She is a maiden with a pen, a harlot in print.

"Should you not call her a harlot who makes us excessively amourous? Governed only by avaricious gain, will not that most base woman deserve the name of prostitute, who saps the strength of the young by fostering wantnoness? This is what the printing presses do: they corrupt susceptible hearts. Yet the (may we say) silly asses do not see this, and brutes rejoice in the fraudulent title of teachers, exalting themselves with a song like this (be so good as to listen):

"O good ciitzen, rejoice: your city is well stuffed with books. For a small sum men turn themselves into doctors in three years. Let thanks be rendered to the printers!

"Any uncultured person without Latin bawls these things. I propose a very different song:

"Never as the city had so small a number of books as at this time, or even of people wanting books. The printing-presses are giving us a city without cash and without a heart. If you are the kind of person who expects light to come to you out of darkness, then it will come to you from printed books.

"I do not wish to batter your ears, o most honoured Doge, with sad songs, drawn out with endless muttering. Discover, instead, how much distance there is between false and true from this book about the saints, which flowed from goose-quills, and which I have abridged with my own hands."

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The Kennicott Bible, the Most Lavisly Illuminated Hebrew Bible to Survive from Medieval Spain July 24, 1476

In the lengthy colophon at the end of the Hebrew illuminated manuscript known as the Kennicott Bible (Oxford, Bodleian Lib., MS. Kenn. 1) the scribe Moses Ibn Zabara stated that on Wednesday, the third day of the month of Aviv, in the year 5236 from the creation (24th July 1476), he finished the book in the town of La Coruña, in the province of Galicia, Spain. He stated that he was personally responsible for the entire text of all twenty-four books of the Bible: he copied the text, added the vocalization marks, wrote all the notes of the Massorah, and finally corrected it against a traditionally accurate Bible. He wrote the Bible for Isaac, son of Solomon di Braga.

Combining Islamic, Christian, and popular motifs, the Kennicott Bible is the mostly lavishly illuminated Hebrew Bible that survived from medieval Spain, before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.  It contains the entire Tenakh (Old Testament) together with RaDaK’s (Rabbi David Kimchi) Sefer Mikhlol, a grammatical treatise on the Tenakh. Two hundred and thirty-eight of the 922 pages of the Bible are illuminated. There are 24 canonical book headings, 49 parashah headings structured with gold in different motifs featuring figures in many colors, 27 lavishly-illuminated arcaded pages framing the text of the Sefer Mikhlol, 9 fully illuminated carpet pages, and 150 psalm headings.

Remarkably, the manuscript contains an inscription identifying the artist who created the illuminations and minatures: Joseph ibn Hayyim. This is the only work associated with or signed by ibn Hayyim. Few Hebrew illuminators signed their work.

The history of manuscript from the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 to the eighteenth century remains a mystery. The Bible owes its name to the English Hebraist Benjamin Kennicott, who acquired it in the eighteenth century while Librarian of Radcliffe Camera, Oxford. The manuscript is preserved in the Bodleian Library. 

In December 2013 a digital facsimile of the manuscript was available from the Jewish Museum in New York at this link

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The Earliest Portrait of an Author in a Printed Book August 28, 1479

Detail from page of Breviarium (1479) printed by Pachel and Scinzenzeler depicting the author, Paulus Attavanti.

The earliest portrait of an author in a printed book, and the earliest woodcut illustration printed in Milan, depicts humanist Paulus Attavanti (Paulus Florentinus) in the edition of his Breviarium totius juris canonici, sive Decretorum breviarium printed by Leonardus Pachel and Ulrich Scinzenzeler in 1479. The woodcut shows the author in profile, writing in his library.

Hirsch, Printing, Selling and Reading 1450-1550 (1967) 49, 60.  ISTC no. ip00178000.

In November 2013 a digital facsimile of the first edition was available from the Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek.

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The Macclesfield Alphabet Book, the Most Complete Pattern Book from Medieval Britain Circa 1490

The Macclesfield Alphabet Book, a medieval alphabetic pattern book in the library of the Earls of Macclesfield since about 1750, is the most complete set of pattern designs for manuscript decoration that survived from medieval Britain. It contains 14 different types of decorative alphabets.

"These include an alphabet of decorative initials with faces; foliate alphabets; a zoomorphic alphabet of initials, and alphabets in Gothic script. In addition there are large coloured anthropomorphic initials modelled after fifteenth-century woodcuts or engravings, as well as two sets of different types of borders, some of which are fully illuminated in colours and gold.

"This manuscript is thought to have been used as a pattern book for an artist's workshop for the transmission of ideas to assistants, or as a 'sample' book to show to potential customers.

"Only a handful of these books survive and as a result, the discovery of the Macclesfield Alphabet Book, filled with designs for different types of script, letters, initials, and borders is of outstanding significance and will contribute to a greater understanding of how these books were produced and used in the Middle Ages, as well as aid the study of material culture and art history.

"The Macclesfield Alphabet Book sheds light on how such tomes were produced. They did not always rely on the creative expertise of the artist, since alphabets and illustrations similar to some of the Macclesfield examples have been found in earlier books and woodcuts"(http://medievalnews.blogspot.com/2009/07/macclesfield-alphabet-book-bought-by.html, accessed 08-03-2009).

In July 2009 acquisition of the manuscript was completed by the British Library at a cost of £600,000, against an offer from the J. Paul Getty Museum for the same amount.

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Trithemius Favors Vellum over Paper for Long Term Information Storage 1494

In his treatise De laude scriptorum (In Praise of Scribes) written in reaction to the information revolution caused by printing, and published as a printed book in 1494, Benedictine abbot Johannes Trithemius (Tritheim) advocated preserving the medieval tradition of manuscript copying in spite of the the advantages of printing for information distribution. He was well aware of these advantages since he exploited them to expand his abbey library after the invention of printing, and also because thirty printed editions of his own writings appeared during the 15th century.

In the context of the fifteenth century information revolution Tritheim is most remembered for questioning the durability of media used in long term information storage when he compared the known long-term durability of information written on traditional parchment, examples of which had already lasted over 700 years, with that written or printed on the newer and less proven medium of paper.

Tritheim wrote:

"Brothers, nobody should say or think: 'What is the sense of bothering with copyring by hand when the art of printing has brought to light so many important books; a huge library can be acquired inexpensively.' I tell you, the man who ways this only tries to conceal his own laziness.

"All of you know the difference between a manuscript and a printed book. The word written on parchment will last a thousand years. The printed word is on paper. How long will it last? The most you can expect a book of paper to survive is two hundred years. Yet, there are many who think they can entrust their works to paper. Only time will tell.

"Yes, many books are now available in print but no matter how many books will be printed, there will always be some left unprinted and worth copying. No one will ever be able to locate and buy all printed books. . . ." (Translated in Tribble and Trubek eds., Writing Material: Readings from Plato to the Digital Age [2003]).

Taking an expansive view of libraries and the history of information, Tritheim also pointed out that all recorded information could never be published in print or collected in a single library. He also believed that in spite of the new technology it remained the responsibility of monks to continue to copy and preserve obscure texts which might not be economically viable to print. Working manually, the monks could produce copies of higher quality, or include decorative elements (ceteros librorum ornatus) not possible in a printed edition. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, Tritheim's retrograde treatise which took issue with the new technology was not a best-seller. It underwent only one printed edition, from Mainz at the press of Peter von Friedberg, during the 15th century.

ISTC no. it00442000.  Wagner, Als die Lettern laufen lernten. Medienwandel im 15. Jahrhundert (2009) no. 32.

In November 2013 a digital facsimile was available from the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek website at this link

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1500 – 1550

Origins of the Pencil Circa 1500 – 1565

 Pencil 'lead' has never actually contained the metal; its name arrose from a visual similarity between the two substances. (View Larger)

Sometime between 1500 and 1565 an "enormous" deposit of very pure and solid graphite was discovered near Borrowdale parish, Cumbria, England. The substance appeared to be a form of lead, and consequently it was called plumbago, the Latin word for lead ore. The material could easily be sawn into sticks; the locals found that it was very useful for "marking sheep."

The Cumbria deposit was the only large scale deposit of graphite ever found in this solid form, and until the end of the 18th century this deposit remained the only source of graphite for pencils, allowing England to retain a monopoly on solid graphite used for pencils until about 1860. 

Other aspects of the early history of the pencil remain uncertain. Simonio and Lyndiana Bernacotti are believed to have created the first carpentry pencil. They did this by hollowing out a stick of juniper wood. "Shortly thereafter, a superior technique was discovered: two wooden halves were carved, a graphite stick inserted, and the two halves then glued together—essentially the same method in use to this day. The black core of pencils is still referred to as 'lead,' even though it never contained the element lead."

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Sigismondo Fanti Issues the First Illustrated Manual on the Art of Writing 1514

Detail from page of Theorica et practica . . .de modo scribendi fabricandique omnes literarum species.  Please click on image to view entire page opening.

In 1514 Italian architect, astrologer, mathematician, and writing-master Sigismondo Fanti published from Venice Theorica et practica ... de modo scribendi fabricandique omnes literarum species. This was the first illustrated manual on the art of writing, and the first book illustrated with calligraphic models of the alphabet. It provided practical advice on selecting implements, making ink, on the correct way of holding the pen, and on spacing letters.

Osley, Luminario. An Introduction to the Intalian Writing-Books of the 16th & 17th Centuries (1972) 5-13.

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Johannes Trithemius Issues the First Book on Cryptography July 1518

 The 'square table' of abbot Johannes Trithemius’s 'Polygraphiae libri sex. - Clavis polygraphiae' was an example of how a message might be encoded through the use of multiple alphabets. (View Larger)

The abbot Johannes Trithemius’s (Tritheim's) Polygraphiae libri sex. - Clavis polygraphiae, a book on many forms of writing, but actually the first book on codes and cryptography, was posthumously published in Basel in 1518, two years after his death. Publication had been delayed because of ecclesiastical disapproval.

The codes that Tritheim invented and described in this book, notably the "Ave Maria" cipher, which takes up the bulk of the work (each word representing a letter, with consecutive tables making it possible to so arrange a code that it will read as a prayer), and the "square table", a sophisticated system of coding using multiple alphabets, were used for centuries. The remarkable title page is composed of a 7 woodcut blocks, showing the author presenting his book, and a bearded monk presenting a pair of keys, to the Emperor Maximilian. This block is within historiated woodcut borders of scholars holding emblems of science, arms of Maximilian and three other armorial shields at corners, and a reclining portrait of Trithemius himself at bottom.

Kahn, The Codebreakers  (1967) 134-35.

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Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi Issues the First Manual on Humanistic Cursive 1522 – 1524

A pamphlet of 32 pages entitled La Operina, issued in Rome in 1522 by a bookseller and scribe employed by the Apostolic Chancery, Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi, was the first book devoted to Humanistic Cursive (Littera Humanistica Cursiva, Cancellaresca, Cancellaresca all'antica). Each page was printed from a woodcut by Ugo da Carpi rather than from type.

Osley, Luminario: An Introduction to the Italian Writing-Books of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1972) 27-34, suggesting that the work may have been first published in 1524.

• In 1524 Arrighi turned to printing and designed his own italic typefaces for his works.

(This entry was last revised on 03-03-2015.)

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Guilio Clovio Completes a Masterpiece of High Renaissance Manuscript Illumination 1546

In 1546 Guilio Clovio (Croatian: Juraj Julije Klović), a renaissance illuminator, miniaturist, and painter mostly active in Italy, completed the illumination of the Farnese Hours for Cardinal Alessandro II Farnese, grandson of Pope Paul III. Creation of the 28 miniature paintings (2 double-page) in this manuscript occupied Clovio for nine years. The manuscript was a collaboration between Clovio and the scribe, Francesco Monterchi, secretary to Cardinal Farnese's father, Pier Luigi Farnese. It is widely considered the masterpiece of the greatest manuscript illuminator of the Italian High Renaissance
"Clovio was a friend of the much younger El Greco, the celebrated Greek artist from Crete, who later worked in Spain, during El Greco's early years in Rome. Greco painted two portraits of Clovio; one shows the four painters whom he considered as his masters; in this Clovio is side by side with Michelangelo, Titian and Raphael. Clovio was also known as Michelangelo of the miniature. Books with his miniatures became famous primarily due to his skilled illustrations. He was persuasive in transferring the style of Italian high Renaissance painting into the miniature format" (Wikipedia article on Giulio Clovio, accessed 03-27-2010).
One portrait of Clovio painted by El Greco shows him pointing to the Farnese Hours.
The Farnese Hours was acquired from J. & S. Goldschmidt by J. P. Morgan, and is preserved in the Morgan Library & Museum (MS M. 69)
"The dependence of Clovio on Michel Angelo and his lifting of certain scenes from the Grimani Breviary, are apparent. The Grimani Breviary was owned from 1528, by Clovio's patron Cardinal Domenico Grimani (1460-1523) for whom Clovio executed the Grimani Commentary MS (no. 11) in Sir John Soane's Museum, London. . . ." (http://corsair.morganlibrary.org/msdescr/BBM0069a.pdf, accessed 03-27-2010).
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1550 – 1600

Robert Granjon Issues the First Book Printed in Civilité Types 1557

In 1557 typographer Robert Granjon published Dialogue de la vie et de la mort by Innocenzo Ringhieri, translated by Jean Louveau, in Lyon, France.  This was the first book set in a new script type cut by Granjon to which he gave the name Lettre françoise.  The type, based upon French cursive gothic letters of the 16th century, became known as civilité from the titles of early books in which it was used: La civilité puerile by Erasmus, published by Jean Bellère in Antwerp, 1559, and various adaptations.

The type seems to have been applied to books on civilité (manners) for the education of children since it was believed that children should learn to read from a book printed in type that resembled current handwriting.

Between 1557 and 1562 Granjon printed twenty books in what came to be known as civilité type, and other printers had typefaces cut that were similar. The type continued to be used, primarily for these purposes, to the mid-19th century.  Using the type was problematic because many ligatures were required and some letters had more than one variant.

Clair, A Chronology of Printing (1969) 55. Carter & Vervliet, Civilité Types (1966).

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Bishop Diego de Landa Orders Destruction of the Maya Codices July 12, 1562

After hearing of Roman Catholic Maya who continued to practice "idol worship," on July 12, 1562 Bishop Diego de Landa ordered an Inquisition in Mani, Yucatan, ending with the ceremony called auto de fe.

"During the ceremony a disputed number of Maya codices (or books; Landa admits to 27, other sources claim '99 times as many') and approximately 5,000 Maya cult images were burned. The actions of Landa passed into the Black Legend of the Spanish in the Americas" (Wikipedia article on Diego de Landa, accessed 11-30-2008).

"Such codices were primary written records of Maya civilization, together with the many inscriptions on stone monuments and stelae which survive to the present day. However, their range of subject matter in all likelihood embraced more topics than those recorded in stone and buildings, and was more like what is found on painted ceramics (the so-called 'ceramic codex'). Alonso de Zorita wrote that in 1540 he saw numerous such books in the Guatemalan highlands which 'recorded their history for more than eight hundred years back, and which were interpreted for me by very ancient Indians' (Zorita 1963, 271-2). Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas lamented that when found, such books were destroyed: 'These books were seen by our clergy, and even I saw part of those which were burned by the monks, apparently because they thought [they] might harm the Indians in matters concerning religion, since at that time they were at the beginning of their conversion.' The last codices destroyed were those of Tayasal, Guatemala in 1697. . . " (Wikipedia article on Maya Codices, accessed 11-30-2008).

Probably because they were sent out of Mexico before the inquisitorial destruction, three codices and possibly a fragment of a fourth, survived. These are:

  • The Madrid Codex, also known as the Tro-Cortesianus Codex;
  • The Dresden Codex;
  • The Paris Codex, also known as the Peresianus Codex;
  • The Grolier Codex, also known as the Grolier Fragment"
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Christophe Plantin Publishes the Earliest Description of the Printing Process 1567

In 1567 Belgian printer Christophe Plantin (Christoffel Plantijn) issued from Antwerp La première, et la seconde partie des dialogues françois, pour les jeunes enfans, with texts in French and Flemish on facing pages. The technical nature of the writing of this work suggests that it was intended to be read by parents, who might pass the information onto their children, rather than necessarily intended to be read by children, themselves. Though 1500 copies were printed, the work is exceptionally rare.

Dialogue IX (pp. 218-255) concerns writing and printing. It is thought that the physician and dramatist Jacques Grevin was the general editor of the Dialogues, but that Plantin, who signed the Preface, was the author, or at least the editor, of the section on writing and printing.

"The chief interest, hwoever, of the Dialogue lies in the later section, which is introducted with a reference to 'the marvellous art of printing.' Here follows an elementary account of typefounding, including a detailed description of the mould and a list of the names of the several sizes of type cast. The compositing furniture, the frames, the form and the chase are all specifically mentioned. The most important portion of the whole is doubtless the section which describes the press. It is a careful description, which, while not comparable with Moxon from the point of view of detail, is very precious as giving us a clear picture of the press nearly one hundred and twenty years earlier than that of the 'Mechanick Exercises' " (Stanley Morison, Forward to Calligraphy & Printing in the sixteenth century.  Dialogue attribributed to Christopher Plantin in French and Flemish facsimile. Edited with English translation and notes by Ray Nash [1964] 13-14).

Nash's edition was first published in an edition of 250 copies in 1940. The slightly revised version in my library is one of 500 copies issued in 1964. The translation is given on rectos with a running commentary and illustrations on versos, followed by a facsimile of the original printing. Barber, French Letterpress Printing (1969) 1.

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Blaise de Vigenère Describes What is Later Known as the Vigenère Cipher 1586

In 1586 French diplomat and cryptographer Blaise de Vigenère published in Paris Traicté des chiffres ou secrètes manières d'escrires. Vigenère's book described a text autokey cipher that became known as the Vigenère cipher because it was misattributed to Vigenère in the 19th century. The actual inventor of the text autokey cipher was Giovan Battista Bellaso (1563).

“Vigenère became acquainted with the writings of Alberti, Trithemius, and Porta when, at the age of twenty-six, he was sent to Rome on a two year diplomatic mission. To start with, his interest in cryptography was purely practical and was linked to his diplomatic work. Then, at the age of thirty-nine, Vigenère decided that he had accumulated enough money for him to be able to abandon his career and concentrate on a life of study. It was only then that he examined in detail the ideas of Alberti, Trithemius, and Porta, weaving them into a coherent and powerful new cipher … The cipher is known as the Vigenère cipher in honour of the man who developed it into its final form. The strength of the Vigenère cipher lies in its using not one, but 26 distinct cipher alphabets to encode a message… To unscramble the message, the intended receiver needs to know which row of the Vigenère square has been used to encipher each letter, so there must be an agreed system of switching between rows. This is achieved by using a keyword… Vigenère’s work culminated in his Traicté des Chiffres, published in 1586. Ironically, this was the same year that Thomas Phelippes was breaking the cipher of Mary Queen of Scots. If only Mary’s secretary had read this treatise, he would have knownabout the Vigenère cipher, Mary’s messages to Babington would have baffled Phelippes, and her life might have been spared” (Singh, The Code Book. The Secret History of Codes and Codebreaking, 46-51).

The Vigenère cypher was regarded as unbreakable for over 300 years, until Charles Babbage and Friedrich Kasiski independently developed a method of multiple tests to carry out successful cryptanalysis.

Leaves CCCXXVII-CCCXXXVI of Vigenère's work contain the first representations of Chinese and Japanese writing in a European printed book.

Galland, An Historical and Analytical Bibliography of the Literature of Cryptography, 193.

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The Only Manuscript Pages Thought to be in the Hand of William Shakespeare Circa 1591 – 1596

Three pages in the manuscript of an unpublished play Sir Thomas More, probably written between 1591 and 1596, represent the only manuscript pages thought to have been written by William Shakespeare. These three pages, written in what is known as Hand D, plus six surviving signatures written by Shakepeare on four legal documents, including his Last Will and Testament containing three signatures, respresent the entire surviving body of manuscripts that Shakespeare is thought to have written in his own hand. Notably all six extant signatures attributed to Shakespeare spell his name differently.

Tbe three pages in the play Sir Thomas More are in the single manuscript of a collaborative Elizabethan play by Anthony Munday and others depicting the life and death of Sir Thomas More. The manuscript, preserved in the British Library as Harley MS 7368, contains many layers of collaborative writing by six different hands, of which five have been identified.  Hand D has been attributed to Shakespeare since 1871, supported by a minute paleographical study of the handwriting by Sir Edward Maunde Thompson in 1916, and the publication in 1923 of Shakespeare's Hand in the Play of Sir Thomas More by five noted scholars to analyzed the play from multiple perspectives, all of which leading to the conclusion that Hand D was the handwriting of Shakespeare.

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1600 – 1650

Erasable Paper from 1609 1609

The Companie of Stationers in London published Robert Triplet's Writing Tables with a Kalendar for XXXIII Yeeres.

In May 2011 it was my pleasure to see the unique recorded copy of this ephemeral publication at an exhibit on diaries at the Morgan Library & Museum. Their exhibition note card read as follows:

"This rare copy of a renaissance portable calendar—a precursor to the pocket diary—includes blank pages that were specially treated with a coating of gesso and glue. Notes could be made on the go with a simple silverpoint stylus (no clunky pen and ink required!) and later wiped away. On the printed page shown, instructions are provided for erasing and rewriting: 'Take a little peece of spunge on a Linnecloath, being cleane without any soyle: wet it in water' and 'wipe that you have written very lightly and it will out, and within one quarter of a hower you may write in the same place againe.' "

ESTC System No. 006200615; ESTC Citation No. S95932. STC (2nd ed) 26050.8.  

ESTC System No. 006200616 cites a unique recorded copy of one presumably earlier, but undated edition of this, at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, for which the estimated date is 1602.

Curiously, when I wrote this note in May 2011 the ESTC missed the point of the gesso and glued blank pages describing them in both records as "Includes chalked and sized pieces of board the size of the book’s leaves, apparently intended to offer a firm surface upon which to write. Not included in pagination or signatures."

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Hermannus Hugo Issues the First History of Writing 1617

In 1617 Dutch Jesuit priest, military chaplain, Neo-Latin poet and writer Herman Hugo (Hermannus Hugo) issued the first book entirely devoted to the history and nature of writing. It was published in Antwerp at the press of Plantin-Moretus, and entitled De prima scribendi origine et universae rei literariae antiquitate. The work included an unusual plate showing 24 different directions in which writing was done across the page in different languages.

"De prima scribendi origine also signals important changes in atitudes to writing in his time, for Hugo gave scant attention to the hermetic and cabalistic ideas about writing that were popular in the Renaissance. In Hugo's mind, writing had the strictly practical function of recording and preserving speech; it is defined in his first chapter as 'vocem aut vocis partes ob oculos ponere per literas' (putting the voice or parts of the voice before the eyes by means of letters). He rejected claims concerning the magical powers of writing, and filled his tract with dry, factual accounts of the evolution of writing instruments and paper, and the different ways of opening and closing epistles. Hugo agreed that Hebrew was the first form of writing, 'nam prima lingua fuit Hebraica' (for the first tongue was Hebrew). But he left unresolved whether Adam received Hebrew characters from God for invented them himself, or even whether they were contrived by his youngest son, Seth. Whatever the origin of Hebrew writing, it was far from being the most perfect in existence. The Jesuit particularly cirticised the direction of Hebrew writing from right to left as evidence of its 'rude' and 'uncultivated' state. Writing from left to right, the direction later adopted by the Greeks, was more 'commodious', he claimed, because the right-handed writer moved away from the body and could more easily see his letters. . . . (Hudson, Writing and European Thought 1600-1830 [1995] 33-34). 

Like certain other seventeenth century scholars such as John Wilkins, Hugo believed that a universal language would be a worthwhile goal. According to Paul Cornelius, Languages in Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth-century Imaginery Voyages (1965) p. 29-30, Hugo's ideas on this topic

"were inspired by the relations about the Chinese language which had found in Matthew Ricci's journals, edited and published by Nicholas Trigault in 1615, just two years before. In the section of his book which had for its subject the possiblity of a universal character for Europe, Hugo discussed the question in the following way: assuming that all men have the same concept of a horse, a cow, or any other object in exterior reality when they see these objects — for he assumed that the senses present things in the same way to all men — Hugo argued that men disagreed because of the ambiguity of the names which they imposed on things, and not because the concepts which they had about them were different. The hope of Herman Hugo, as well as of other language reformers of the same period, was that all men would agree upon the many important issues over which there had been so much strife, if the truths about them were clearly enough expressed in a language inteligible to all men. Maintaining that the invention of such universal symbols would not oppose the will of God—which was the Confusion of Tongues He had imposed at Babel— Hugo argued that such symbols would be the means by which a divided society could become one again. Nor would the learning of such a large number of characters be too difficult for human industry to accomplish. To prove this, Hugo argued that even in his own time, the peoples of Europe memorized the many words of their own inadequate languages. Certainly Europeans would be able to invent and memorize universal characters of their own, and by doing so alleviate the Confusion of Tongues.

"Hugo did not go beyond proposing a universal language for Europe; he did not try to invent one. But behind his posposal and the actual projects of a few decades later were the same philosophical assumptions. The increasing emphasis on the sensory origins of all human knowledge in the seventeenth century, which perhaps culminated in John Locke's theory of human knowledge, played an important role in men's attitudes towards langauge during that age. Behind Hugo's proposal were those assumptions, and the hope that a language could be invented which would, as closely as possible, reflect the reality for which it stood. The Chinese written language, he believed, was a language which approached this ideal."  

Hugo's history of writing was translated into French in 1774 and published as Dissertation historique sur l'invention des lettres et des caractères d'ecriture, sur les instrumens dont les anciens se sont servi pour l'ecriture, tirée d'Hermannus Hugo (Paris, 1774).

Hugo's Pia desideria, a spiritual emblem book published in Antwerp in 1624, was the most popular religious emblem book of the seventeenth century". It underwent 42 Latin editions, and was widely translated up to the 18th century.

(This entry was last revised on 03-04-2015.)

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Ole Worm Issues the First Study of Runestones and Runic Inscriptions 1641

In 1641 Danish physician and antiquarian Ole Worm (Olaus Wormius) published Danicorum monumentorum libri sex: e spissis antiquitatum tenebris et in Dania ac Norvegia extantibus ruderibus eruti in Copenhagen (København). This was the first published study of the Runestones of Denmark and Norway, and one of the few surviving sources for many runic inscriptions now lost. 

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1650 – 1700

Working Around the English Monopoly on Solid Graphite 1662

In 1662 Germans in Nuremberg attempted to work around the English monopoly on solid graphite for pencils by trying to manufacture graphite sticks from powdered graphite, sulphur, and antimony.

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Jacques Raveneau Issues the First Book on the Detection of Forged Documents 1665 – 1666

In 1665 and 1666 French forensic writing expert Jacques Raveneau published the first book on the detection of forged documents:Traité des inscriptions en faux et reconnoissances d'escritures & signatures par comparison & autrement. In the Bibliothèque nationale de France there is a copy published by Raveneau and dated 1665 (B. N., F. 42404). All other copies cited in OCLC when I searched in January 2016 were of the second, or permitted issue, issued in Paris by Thomas Jolly in 1666. According to Anne Sauvy, Livres saisis à Paris entre 1678 and 1701 (1972) No. 19, the 1665 edition bears a privilege dated July 1665. In that copy is a note indicating that this privilege was obtained improperly. Presumably Raveneau had to delay publication until he obtained an accepted privilege; the privilege in the 1666 edition is dated April 8, 1666. The edition includes a florid dedication to French magistrate Guillaume Ier de Lamoignon, marquis de Basville, who was first president of the Parliament of Paris. The dedication is prominently featured on the title page.

In spite of the political influence of the dedicatee, authorities suppressed publication of the 1666 edition, believing that the information it contained was as useful to forgers as it was to those who attempted to detect forgeries. Sauvy indicates that Raveneau may have been imprisoned for publishing this work. Whatever the case, its suppression in Paris did not prevent its publication elsewhere. An edition was published in Luxembourg, 1673, and another edition was issued in Paris, in 1691 by Jean Guignard.

(This entry was last revised on 01-08-2016.) 

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The Beginning of Palaeography 1675

Jesuit Daniel van Papenbroeck (Papebroch) published "Propylaeum antiquarium circa veri ac falsi discrimen in vetustis membranis" in Acta sanctorum, Aprilis II (Antwerp, 1675) I-LII. In this paper Papenbroeck proved that a charter guaranteeing certain privileges to the rival religious order, the Benedictines, supposedly issued by the Merovingian king Dagobert in 646, was a forgery. He also argued that handwriting should be examined carefully before an ancient document is accepted as genuine. This paper may be considered the beginning of palaeography.

Boyle, Medieval Latin Palaeography: A Bibliographical Introduction (1984) no. 71.

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Foundation of Palaeography and Diplomatics 1681

In his book on medieval documents, De re diplomatica libri sex, published in Paris in 1681 Benedictine monk Jean Mabillon founded the formal study of palaeography and diplomatics, laying down the principles for dating scripts and ornament in manuscripts.  At this time the term palaeography did not exist. It was later coined by Mabillon's pupil Bernard de Montfaucon, who in his Palaeographia Graeca (1708) applied similar principles to the dating of Greek manuscripts.  

Initially paleography developed to resolve legal disputes over documents. During the Middle Ages, the production of spurious charters and other false documents was common, either to provide written documentation of existing rights or to bolster the plausibility of claimed rights. These spurious documents were later employed to bolster claims that were fraudulent. In 1675 the Jesuit Daniel van Papenbroeck (Papebroch) proved that a charter guaranteeing certain privileges to the Benedictines, supposedly issued by the Merovingian king Dagobert in 646, was a forgery.

"The French Benedictine order, which had recently been revived under the title of the Congregation of Saint Maur and was devoting itself to various scholarly enterprises, treated van Papenbroeck's work as a challenge. One of its most able members, Dom Jean Mabillon (1632-1707), spent several years in studying charters and manuscripts, drawing up in a systematic way for the first time a series of criteria for testing the authenticity of medieval documents. The result was De re diplomatica (1681), to which we owe the word diplomatic, normally used as the technical term for the study of legal and official documents. Mabillon's work dealt also to a lesser extent with manuscripts, but was resticted to Latin. It was immediately recognized as a masterpiece, even by van Papenbroeck, who had a cordial exchange of letters with Mabillon, acknowledging that his attempt to prove the spuriousness of all Merovingian charters was an excess of skepticism. On the other hand his thesis about the charter of 646 was upheld" (Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars 3rd ed [1991] 189).

Boyle, Medieval Latin Palaeography: A Bibliographical Introduction (1983) No. 72.  Carter & Muir, Printing and the Mind of Man (1967) No. 158.

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Locke's Method of Indexing Commonplace Books 1685 – 1706

In 1685 English physician and philosopher John Locke published "Méthode nouvelle de dresser des recueils" in Le Clerc's Bibliothèque universelle II (1685). This was translated into English in Le Clerc's Observations (London, 1697).  It was first published separately as A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books ; written by the late Learned Mr. John Lock, Author of the Essay concerning Humane Understanding. Translated from the French. To which is added Something from Monsieur Le Clerc, relating to the same Subject. A treatise necessary for all Gentlemen, especially Students of Divinity, Physick, and Law. There are also added two Letters, concerning a most useful method for instructing Persons that are Deaf and Dumb, or that Labour under an Impediments of Speech, to speak distinctly; written by the late Learned Dr. John Wallis. (London, 1706.) 

Locke began keeping commonplace books during his first year at Oxford in 1652.  On pp. [vi] and [1] of the 1706 edition we find a chart printed in red and black showing how he was able to create an expandable index of topics on two pages in each commonplace book. The index contained a line for every letter of the alphabet and for each letter there were sub-divisions based on the vowels a, e, i, o, and u. He described his method as follows:  

"When I meet with any thing worth putting into my Common-Place-Book, I presently look for a proper Head. Suppose for Example, the Head were Epistle;  I look in the Index the First Letter which the Vowel that follows, which in this Case E I. If there is found any Number in the Space marked E I, that shows me the space designed for Words which begin with E, and whose Vowel that immediately follows is I, I must refer to the Word Epistle in the Page what I have to take notice of, I write the Head in pretty large Letters, so that the principal Word is found in the Margin, and I continue the Line in writing on what I have to remark. I constantly observe this Method, that nought but the Head  appear in the Margin, and on on without carrying the Line again into the Margin. When one has thus preserv'd the margin clear, the Heads, present themselves at First Sight" (1706 edition p. 6).

Locke's method of indexing his notes was reflective of styles of reading and note-taking characteristic of his time.  According to a very widely quoted passage by Robert Darnton:

“Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end (unless they are digital natives and click through texts on machines), early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your own personality. . . By selecting and arranging snippets from a limitless stock of literature, early modern Englishmen gave free play to a semi-conscious process of ordering experience. The elective affinities that bound their selection into patterns reveal an epistemology — a process of knowing — at work below the surface" (Darnton, “Extraordinary Commonplaces,” New York Review of Books 47 (20)[December 21, 2000] 82, 86).

Locke's method of indexing commonplace books remained widely used for at least one hundred years. Toward the end of the 18th century English publisher John Bell published notebooks entitled Bell’s Common-Place Book, Formed generally upon the Principles Recommended and Practised by Mr Locke.” These included eight pages of instructions on Locke’s indexing method, a system which not only made it easier to find passages, but also served the higher purpose of “facilitat[ing] reflexive thought.”

♦ Reflecting upon Robert Darnton's comment, perhaps my personal reading and writing style is more representative of the seventeenth century than the twentieth or twenty-first.  Throughout my career in the antiquarian book trade, which began in the 1960s, I found myself moving between subjects in the course of a day as I catalogued various books in stock, read about other books for sale, or discussed the different interests of clients.  With access to the Internet in the 1990s it was, of course, possible to follow-up more efficiently on diverse topics with Internet searches and hyperlinks.  The way that From Cave Paintings to the Internet is written, as a series of reading and research notes connected by links and indexed in a database, may be viewed to a certain extent as analogous to the method of maintaining and indexing commonplace books described by Locke. ♦

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1700 – 1750

Bernard de Montfaucon's "Palaeographia Graeca" Coins the Word Palaeography 1708

In 1708 Benedictine monk and scholar Bernard de Montfaucon, published Palaeographia Graeca in Paris. This work coined the term palaeography (paleography) and founded Byzantine (Greek) paleography in particular.

Carter & Muir, Printing and the Mind of Man (1967) No. 175.

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Jonathan Swift Creates a Fictional Device that Resembles a Modern Computer 1726

In Gulliver's Travels Jonathan Swift describes a fictional device called The Engine, which generates permutations of word sets. It is possibly the earliest literary reference to a fictional device resembling aspects of a modern computer.  Though Swift does not reference the medieval Ars generalis ultima (Ars magna) of the Spanish philosopher Ramon Llull (Lull), called by Leibniz, the ars combinatoria in Leibnitz's De arte combinatoria, the passage is considered a parody of Llull's method.

Swift wrote:

“... Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.” He then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down."

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Ibrahim Müteferrika Issues the First Book Printed by Muslims Using Movable Type 1729

In 1729, two years after he received permission to print, Ibrahim Müteferrika founded the first printing press in Turkey, in his home at Constantinople. According to extant Ottoman documents, during the intervening two years Muteferrika cut his own punches and cast his own Arabic type, a typeface different from European typefaces of the period, closer to Naskh (Naskhi, Nesih) the standard book hand of the Muslim world. Muteferrika's first publication—the first book printed in Arabic by Muslims— was a Turkish translation of an Arabic dictionary in two thick volumes, the first containing 666 pages and the second containing 756 pages. The edition consisted of 1000 copies.

"Known as the Sahah ('The Correct"), it was composed in the 10th century by al-Jawhari, and is one of the classics of Arabic lexiocography. It contains more than 22,000 root words, and each usage is illustrated by quotations from the poets" (http://muslimheritage.com/topics/default.cfm?ArticleID=988, accessed 06-10-2012). 

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Bernard de Montfaucon Issues the First Continent-Wide Union Catalogue of Manuscripts 1739

In 1739 French scholar and Benedictine monk Bernard de Montfaucon published Bibliotheca Bibliothecarum Manuscriptorum nova in Paris. A catalogue of all the manuscript collections in France and Italy with which Montfaucon was familiar, plus small sections on manuscripts in libraries in Germany, Netherlands and England, this 1669-page work in 2 folio volumes was the first attempt at a continent-wide catalogue of manuscripts. Its emphasis was on medieval and Renaissance texts.

Montfaucon began with a list of all the libraries, institutional and private, for which he published holdings. These included the well-known collections and those of medieval monasteries such as Bobbio, Corbie and Fulda, but also including lesser-known monastic libraries. Then he published a 250-page index of authors and codices.  The work then listed the manuscript contents of libraries by country beginning with Italy and the Vatican Library. The work ended with another 160-page index of authors and "rerum" (things). The comprehensive indices make it possible to locate manuscript texts by author and subject. As such it remains the most useful tool for checking the distribution of manuscript texts in European libraries, and their survival in institutions up to the first third of the eighteenth century.

Carter & Muir, Printing and the Mind of Man (1967) no. 175, note.

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1750 – 1800

The Jacquet-Droz Automata 1768 – 1774

Between 1768 and 1774 Swiss-born watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri-Louis, and Jean-Frédéric Leschot constructed three automata: The Writer (controlled by a mechanism consisting of 6000 metal parts), The Musician (controlled by a 2500-piece mechanism) and The Draughtsman (controlled by a 2000-piece mechanism).  

The Writer has an input device to set tabs that form a mechanical programmable memory, forty cams that represent a read-only program, and a quill pen for output. He is thus able to write any text up to 40 letters long. The text is coded on a wheel where characters are selected one by one. He uses a goose feather to write, which he inks from time to time, and he shakes his wrist to prevent ink from spilling. His eyes follow the text being written, and his head moves when he dips his pen in the inkwell. 

The Musician is a female organist who actually plays a genuine custom-built instrument by pressing the keys with her fingers. The music is not recorded or played by a mechanical music box. The automaton "breathes," showing movements of her chest, follows her fingers with her head and eyes, and also imitates some of the movements of a real player such as balancing her torso. 

The Draughtsman is a young child who actually draws four different images: a portrait of Louis XV, a royal couple (believed to be Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI), a dog with "Mon toutou" ("my doggy") written beside it, and a scene of Cupid driving a chariot pulled by a butterfly. This automaton uses a system of cams which code the movements of the hand in two dimensions, plus one to lift the pencil. The Draughtsman also moves on his chair, and periodically blows on his pencil to remove dust.

The Jaquet-Droz automata are preserved and operational at the art and history museum in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. 

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Joseph Priestley & Edward Nairne Invent the Rubber Eraser? April 15, 1770

On April 15, 1770 Joseph Priestley described a vegetable gum which has the ability to rub out pencil marks: "I have seen a substance excellently adapted to the purpose of wiping from paper the mark of black lead pencil." He called the substance "rubber."

Also in 1770 Edward Nairne, an English engineer, is credited with developing the first widely-marketed rubber eraser for an inventions competition. He reportedly sold natural rubber erasers for the high price of 3 shillings per half-inch cube.  This was the first practical application of rubber in Europe.

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Thomas Astle Issues the First English History of Paleography and Diplomatics 1784

In 1784 archivist, paleographer and antiquary Thomas Astle, Keeper of Records in the Tower of London, published The Origin and Progress of Writing, as well Hieroglyphic and Elementary, Illustrated by Engravings Taken from Marbles, Manuscripts and Charters, Ancient and Modern: Also, some account of the Origin and Progress of Printing. This work was probably the earliest treatise on paleography in English, and the earliest English work on diplomatics, the "science of diplomas, or of ancient writings, literary and public documents, letters, decrees, charters, codicils, etc., which has for its object to decipher old writings, to ascertain their authenticity, their date, signatures, etc." Astle also provided detailed summaries of the history of writing materials— parchment, vellum, and paper, including Chinese paper— and a well-informed summary of the history of printing and typography in Europe. The colored plates in this work may be the first color plates published in a treatise on paleography.

By hieroglyphs, Astle meant "picture-writing," and used as examples pictograms by the ancient Maya and the Egyptians.

Astle was well aware that the Romans brought literacy to Britain, and that after the departure of the Romans from Britain in 427 Britain reverted to illiteracy, writing on p. 96:

"After the most diligent inquiry it doth not appear, that the Britons had the use of letters before their intercourse with the Romans. Although alphabets have been produced, which are said to have been used by the Ancient Britons, yet no one MS. ever appeared that was written in them. (I have several of these pretended alphabets in my collection; though they are only Roman letters deformed.) Cunoboline, king of Britain, who lived in the reigns of the emperors Tiberius and Caligula, erected different mints in this island, and coined money in gold, silver and copper, inscribed with Roman characters.(Many of these coins are preserved in the elaborate dissertation of the Rev. Mr. Pegges, on the coins of Cunoboline; and many particulars concerning this prince appear in the hist. of Manchester, by Mr. Whitaker, vol. I p. 284, 372, and in his corrections, chap. ix.). From the coming of Julius Caesar, till the time the Romans left the island in the year 427, the Roman letters were as familiar to the eyes of the inhabitants, as their language to their ears, as the numberless inscriptions, coins, and other monuments of the Romans still remaining amongst us, sufficiently evince. (See several monuments inscribed with Roman British characters in Borlace's Hist. of Cornwall, p. 391, 396. See more in Warburton's Vallum Romanum, London, 1753, 4to). However, we are of opinion, that writing was very little practised by the Britons, till after the coming of St. Augustin, about the year 596.

"The Saxons, who were invited hither by the Britons, and who arrived about the year 449, were unacquainted with letters. The characters which they afterwards used, were adopted by them in the island, and though the writing in England from the fifth to the middle of the eleventh century is called Saxon (The architecture in England, which preceded the Gothic, is usually called Saxon, but it is in fact Roman.) it will presently appear, that the letters used in this island were derived from the Roman, and were really Roman in their origin, and Italian in their structure at first, but were barbarized in their aspect by the British Romans and Roman Britons. A great variety of capital letters were used by the Saxons in their MSS. of which many specimens are given in our plates."

Note that in the quotation from Astle above I have added in his footnotes to the paragraphs in parentheses, to provide a more complete example of Astle's scholarship.

The numerous plates in Astle's volume are beautifully produced through engraving, some printed in a single color, and some colored by hand. The scan provided on the Internet by Google books is not reflective of the fine quality of the printed images or of the overall fine quality of book production shown in Astle's deluxe publication.

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Samuel Taylor Develops the First System of Shorthand Used Throughout the English Speaking World 1786

In 1786 English stenographer Samuel Taylor published An Essay Intended to Establish A Standard for an Universal System of Stenography, or Short Hand Writing; Upon such simple & approv'd principles as have never before been offered to the Public; whereby a person in a few days may instruct himself to write Short hand correctly & by a little practice cannot fail taking down any discourse deliver'd in Public.  Taylor who advertised himself as "Many years professor & teacher of the science at Oxford, & the Universities of Scotland & Ireland," developed Taylor shorthand using an alphabet composed of 19 letters of simplified shapes. His stenographic method involved cutting out the superfluous consonants as well as the vowels in polysyllabic words. 

Having developed his stenographic system since 1773, Taylor  issued his book from London in high style with an elegant engraved title page and 11 engraved plates.  His book included an unusual number of testamonials and a list of subscribers.  He published the price of the book boldly on the title page— one guinea, a very high price for the time.  The title page also states in fine print that the book was printed for Samuel Taylor on january 1, 1786. . . .

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The Beginnings of Papyrology 1788

The discipline of papyrology, or the study of ancient papyri, originated in 1788 when "Danish classicist Niels Iversen Schow published a Greek papyrus that recorded a series of receipts for work performed in 193 CE on the irrigation dikes in the Fayum district of Egypt.  The papyrus itself, a roll with twelve and a half surviving columns, had been bought in 1778 near Memphis by an anonymous merchant. As legend has it, the merchant bought only this one papyrus of the fifty offered for sale; 'the Turks' proceeded to burn the rest, delighting in the resulting aroma. Details of the story, especially its olfactory coda, have been contested, but it is certain that the papyrus that escaped destruction was donated to Cardinal Stefano Borgia. Hence, it is sometimes known as the Charta Borgiana, but it is also called the Schow papyrus after its editor. . . . Initially housed in the Cardinal's museum at Velitri, it now resides in the Museo Nationale Archeologico in Naples" (Keenan, "The History of the Discipline," Bagnall (ed) The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology [2009] 59-60).

Schow, Charta Papyracea Graece Scripta Musei Borgiani Velitris Qua Series Incolarum Ptolemaidis Arsinoiticae in Aggeribus Et Fossis Operantium Exhibetur . . . (Rome, 1788).

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Nicholas Jacques Conté Invents Modern Pencil Lead 1795

During the Napoleonic wars, France, under naval blockade imposed by Great Britain, was unable to import pure graphite sticks from England. Nor could France import English pencils or the inferior German pencils. To solve this problem, in 1795 Nicholas Jacques Conté, an officer in Napoleon's army, discovered a method of mixing powdered graphite with clay and forming the mixture into rods that were fired in a kiln. By varying the ratio of graphite to clay, the hardness of the graphite rod could also be varied.

"This method of [pencil lead] manufacture which had been earlier discovered by the Austrian Joseph Hardtmuth of Koh-I-Noor in 1790 remains in use."

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Friedrich August Wolf Argues that the Poetry of Homer Shoud be Studied as a Product of Oral Tradition 1795

In 1795 German Philologist Friedrich August Wolf published, in Halle "E Libraria Orphanotrophei," Prolegomena ad Homerum Volume 1 (all published)This began the scholarly investigation of the oral sources of the epic poems attributed to Homer.

"In 1788 Villoison published the marginal scholia to the Iliad found in the codex now known as Venetus A (Marc. gr. 454). They contained a vast fund of new information about the Alexandrian critics of Homer, and this information stimulated F.A. Wolf to write Prolegomena ad Homerum, one of the most important books in the whole history of classical scholarship (1795). While Robert Wood, in his Essay on the original genius of Homer, had already seen in 1767 that the usual picture of a literate Homer writing down his poems could not be a complete explanation of the present form of the Homeric poems, it was left to Wolf to demonstrate, with the help of the newly found scholia, that the textual problems in Homer were not of the same type as in other authors, and that an explanation for this state of affairs could be provided on the assumption that the text of Homer was not written down until the time of Solon or Pisistratus. Wolf's book marked the beginning of serious discussion of what is traditionally called the Homeric Question" (Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars 3rd ed [1991] 198).

(This entry was last revised on 04-26-2014.)

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1800 – 1850

The Gradual Disappearance of the Long S in Typography Circa 1800 – 1820

"The long 's' is derived from the old Roman cursive medial s, which was very similar to an elongated check mark. When the distinction between upper case (capital) and lower case (small) letter-forms became established, towards the end of the eighth century, it developed a more vertical form. At this period it was occasionally used at the end of a word, a practice which quickly died out but was occasionally revived in Italian printing between about 1465 and 1480. The short 's' was also normally used in the combination 'sf', for example in 'ſatisfaction'. In German written in Blackletter, the rules are more complicated: short 's' also appears at the end each word within a compound word.

"The long 's' is subject to confusion with the lower case or minuscule 'f', sometimes even having an 'f'-like nub at its middle, but on the left side only, in various kinds of Roman typeface and in blackletter. There was no nub in its italic typeform, which gave the stroke a descender curling to the left—not possible with the other typeforms mentioned without kerning.

"The nub acquired its form in the blackletter style of writing. What looks like one stroke was actually a wedge pointing downward, whose widest part was at that height (x-height), and capped by a second stroke forming an ascender curling to the right. Those styles of writing and their derivatives in type design had a cross-bar at height of the nub for letters 'f' and 't', as well as 'k'. In Roman type, these disappeared except for the one on the medial 's'.

"The long 's' was used in ligatures in various languages. Three examples were for 'si', 'ss', and 'st', besides the German 'double s' 'ß'.

"Long 's' fell out of use in Roman and italic typography well before the middle of the 19th century; in French the change occurred from about 1780 onwards, in English in the decades before and after 1800, and in the United States around 1820. This may have been spurred by the fact that long 's' looks somewhat like 'f' (in both its Roman and italic forms), whereas short 's' did not have the disadvantage of looking like another letter, making it easier to read correctly, especially for people with vision problems.

"Long 's' survives in German blackletter typefaces. The present-day German 'double s' 'ß' (das Eszett "the ess-zed" or scharfes-ess, the sharp S) is an atrophied ligature form representing either 'ſz' or 'ſs' (see ß for more). Greek also features a normal sigma 'σ' and a special terminal form 'ς', which may have supported the idea of specialized 's' forms. In Renaissance Europe a significant fraction of the literate class was familiar with Greek.The long 's' survives in elongated form, and with an italic-style curled descender, as the integral symbol ∫ used in calculus; Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz based the character on the Latin word summa (sum), which he wrote ſumma. This use first appeared publicly in his paper De Geometria, published in Acta Eruditorum of June, 1686, but he had been using it in private manuscripts since at least 1675" (Wikipedia article on Long s, accessed 09-11-2009).

♦ According to R. B. McKerrow, An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students (1927), the effective introduction of the reform in England was credited to the printer and publisher John Bell who in his British Theatre of 1791 used  the short s throughout.  "In London printing the reform was adopted very rapidly, and save in work of an intentionally antiquarian character, we do not find much use of [long] s in the better kind of printing after 1800" (McKerrow p. 309).  Though it would be amusing to do so, there seems to be no reason to accept the legend that  Bell initiated the change in his edition of Shakespeare because of his dismay at the appearance of the long s in Ariel's song in The Tempest: "Where the bee sucks, there suck I."

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Maillardet's Automaton Circa 1800

About the year 1800 Swiss mechanician Henri Maillardet, working in London, constructed Maillardet's Automaton (or the "Draughtsman-Writer", or "Maelzel's Juvenile Artist" or "Juvenile Artist"), a spring-activated automaton that draws pictures and writes verses in both French and English. The motions of the hand are produced by a series of cams located on shafts in the base of the automaton, which produces the necessary movement to complete seven sketches and the text. This automaton has the largest cam-based memory of any automaton of the era. The capacity of the automaton to store seven images within the machine was calculated as 299,040 points, or almost 300 kilobits of storage. This was achieved by placing the driving machinery in a large chest that forms the base of the machine, rather than in the automaton's body.

"The memory is contained in the 'cams,' or  brass disks. . . . As the cams are turned by the clockwork motor, three steel fingers follow their irregular edges. The fingers translate the movements of the cams into side to side, front and back, and up and down movements of the doll's writing hand through a complex system of levers and rods that produce the markings on paper" (http://www.fi.edu/learn/sci-tech/automaton/automaton.php?cts=instrumentation, accessed 12-30-2013).

When first presented to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in 1928, the automaton was of unknown origin. Once restored to working order, the automaton itself provided the answer when it penned the words "written by the automaton of Maillardet."

This automaton was a principal inspiration for Brian Selznick's 2007 book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was later adapted to make the 2011 film Hugo directed by Martin Scorsese.

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Ralph Wedgwood Invents Carbon Paper 1806

In 1806 English inventor, Ralph Wedgwood of Etruria in Staffordshire, cousin and business partner of potter and industrialist Josiah Wedgwood, received a patent for the earliest form of carbon paper. This invention appears to have been a great success in that it may have earned £10,000 in profit within the first seven years of the patent.

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"Egyptian": The First Commercially Produced Sans-Serif Typeface 1816

In his last type specimen book before the sale of his foundry to Blake & Garnet, typographer and type-founder William Caslon IV, grandson of the first William Caslon, offered the Egyptian typeface. This was the first sans-serif (sans serif, sanserif) font commercially produced. The name of the font alluded to the ancient models on which it was based. The sixth-century BCE stone inscriptions, to which the ancestry of most Roman types may be traced, were without serifs.

Berry & Poole, Annals of Printing (1966) 208.

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Foundation of the Ecole nationale des chartes February 22, 1821

On February 22, 1821 the École nationale des chartes, an elite French university-level institution providing education and training for archivists and librarians, was founded by royal ordinance at the Bibliothèque royale, predecessor of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The school closed in 1823, and reopened following a new ordinance of November 11, 1829. In 1862 the school moved to a site close to the Archives nationales, and later still to the Sorbonne, to facilities intended for the suppressed theology department.

Moore, Restoring Order. The Ecole des Chartes and the Organization of Archives and Libraries in France, 1820-1870 (2008).

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Invention of the Mechanical Pencil December 20, 1822

Though earlier examples of mechanical pencils have survived, in 1822 English engineer and inventor John Isaac Hawkins and English silversmith and inventor Sampson Mordan were the first to patent a metal pencil with an internal mechanism for propelling the graphite (pencil lead) shaft forward during use, as an improvement on the less complex leadholders that merely clutched the pencil lead to hold it into a single position. The two received British Patent No. 4742, "Pencil holders or port crayons; pens for facilitating writing and drawing," published: 20 December 1822. 

"After buying out Hawkins' patent rights, Mordan entered into a business partnership with Gabriel Riddle from 1823 to 1837. The earliest Mordan pencils are thus hallmarked SMGR. After 1837, Sampson Mordan ended the partnership with Riddle and continued to manufacture pencils as "S.MORDAN & CO". His company continued to manufacture pencils and a wide range of silver objects until World War II, when the factory was bombed" (Wikipedia article on Mechanical pencil, accessed 01-03-2013).

"Mordan often made his pencils in whimsical "figural" shapes that resembled animals, Egyptian mummies, or other objects; like his other silverware and goldware, these pencils are now highly collectible" (Wikipedia article on Sampson Mordan, accessed 01-03-2013).

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Typing a Letter Takes Longer than Writing by Hand 1829

Replica of Burt Typographer.

William Austin Burt.

William Austin Burt of Detroit, Michigan invented an early typewriter, called the Typographer in 1829. The machine that Burt invented was cumbersome and difficult to use. Writing a letter with Burt's "Typographer" took longer than writing by hand.

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The Penny Post: Perhaps the Greatest Single Stimulus to Written Communication 1837 – 1840

Until the development and widespread adoption of the electric telegraph, letter writing was the only way to communicate with people at a distance, and because of the high cost of telegraph, until the invention of the telephone, and later of email, letter writing remained the primary method. However, prior to 1840 sending a letter could cost as much as a day's wage for the working classes, and those receiving a letter had to pay for its delivery. Prepayment was also social slur on the recipient; one had to be financially solvent to receive a letter. If the recipient could not afford to pay for a letter, it was returned to sender. Thus for the working classes, leaving home often meant losing touch with family and friends.

In 1837 English teacher, inventor and social reformer Rowland Hill circulated his privately printed pamphlet, Post Office Reform: its Importance and Practicability. In this Hill explained why the postal system needed reform, and laid out his principles for reform. It may be validly argued that Hill's invention of the Penny Post was the greatest stimulus to written communication in history, making written communication affordable to all classes of society.

"The penny post inaugurated and administered by Rowland Hill required the adoption of four novel principles: (1) prepayment of postage, (2) payment by weight instead of by the number of sheets, (3) the use of envelope, (4) the use of adhesive stamps on letters. Prior to this reform, for example, the use of an envelope would have been a novelty to most letter-writers and entailed double postage" (Carter & Muir, Printing and the Mind of Man [1967] 306a).

"In the 1830s, charges were notoriously inconsistent since the Post Office determined single, double, or triple rates according to the number of miles a letter traversed to get to its destination and the number of sheets of paper (and enclosures) a writer used. A letter might not necessarily travel the most direct or economical route. In addition, postal workers used “candling” — an inexact method of holding a letter up to the light — to assess the number of letter sheets or enclosures. Any reader of Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) knows that to save costs, cross writing was common — a writer turned his or her letter horizontally and “crossed” (or wrote over) the original text at a right angle rather than use an additional sheet of paper. Folded letters with a wax seal may look quaint, but like cross writing, this was also a pre-1840s cost cutting measure since that same missive, posted in an envelope, would receive double charge." 

"One of the first things Queen Victoria did when she came to the throne in 1837 was to appoint a Select Committee on Postage, chaired by Robert Wallace MP and charged to look into the condition of the post with a view towards postal rate reduction. Victoria, on August 17, 1839, gave royal assent to the Postage Duties Bill and, in 1840, ushered in Uniform Penny Postage and the enormously popular adhesive postage stamp, prepaid by the sender (an unpaid letter cost the recipient 2 pence to encourage prepayment). The Penny Post abolished the much-abused system of franking — postmarks granting Members of Parliament and the Queen free carriage of mail — and transformed the mail from an expensive tax for revenue to a civic service affordable to all social classes" (http://www.victorianweb.org/technology/letters/intro.html, accessed 04-17-2013).

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Pitman Shorthand, & The First "Correspondence Course" 1837

In 1837 Isaac Pitman published Stenographic Sound-Hand in London at the press of Samuel Bagster, introducing Pitman shorthand, a shorthand system for the English language.

Pitman's first pamphlet on the system, issued in London by Samuel Bagster, a publisher of bibles and related books on religion, consisted of only 11 pages and two lithographed plates.

In contrast to previous shorthand writing systems, which were mostly orthographic, or based on short-cuts in spelling, Pitman's system was mostly phonetic. 

In the 1840s Pitman offered instruction in his shorthand system by correspondence course. This was the first widely adopted practice of distance education, responsible, to a large extent, for the successful dissemination of Pitman's system.

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Probably the World's Oldest Picture Postcard 1840

What has been characterized as "the world's oldest picture postcard" was sent in 1840 to a writer named Theodore Hook who lived at Fulham in London. The image on the hand-colored card with a Penny Black stamp caricatures the postal service by showing post office "scribes" sitting around an enormous inkwell.  It is thought that Hook, a playwright and novelist noted at the time for his "wit and drollery," probably sent the postcard to himself as a practical joke.

The significance of Hook's card was not realized until 2001, when postal historian Edward B. Proud discovered it in a stamp collection. Until then it had been thought the postcard was invented in Austria, Germany or the United States in the 1860s. 

In March 2002 Hook's postcard sold for £31,750 including buyer's premium, at an auction at the London Stamp Exchange.

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The Penny Black May 1, 1840

As part of the postal reforms initiated by Rowland Hill, the world's first adhesive postage stamp was distributed in London. With an elegant engraving of the young Queen Victoria, the Penny Black was an immediate success. The first stamps were not perforated. 

Although May 6 was the official date that the stamps became available, there are covers postmarked May 2, due to postmasters selling the stamps from May 1. A single example is known on an envelope with a postmark dated  May 1, 1840. 

"The Penny Black was in use for only a little over a year. It was found that a red cancellation was hard to see on a black background and the red ink was easy to remove, making it possible to re-use stamps after they had been cancelled. In 1841, the Treasury switched to the Penny Red and issued cancellation devices with black ink, much more effective as a cancellation and harder to remove. However, the re-use of stamps with the un-cancelled portions of two stamps to form an unused whole impression continued, and in 1864 the stars in the top corners were replaced by the check letters as they appeared in the lower corners, but in reverse order" (Wikipedia article on Penny Black, accessed 01-31-2012).


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The Invention of Anastatic Printing Enables Inexpensive Facsimiles and Pirated Editions October 1841 – October 25, 1845

The graphic reproduction process which came to be called anastatic printing first began to be known in October 1841 when the proprietors of the London journal, the Athenaeum received from a correspondent in Berlin a reprint of 4 pages of their issue of September 25, containing some woodcut illustrations. This was so perfect a facsimile that they immediately inquired as to how it had been done, and they learned that it had been made by a secret new process. In their issue No. 736 of December 4, 1841 the Athenaeum published a notice on p. 932 entitled "Printing and Piracy-New Discovery" concerning the dangers to the publishing industry that such a high quality facsimile method could pose, particularly with regard to expensive illustrated works, production of facsimiles of which had previously been assumed to be difficult and expensive. The new process, it was learned, had been invented by a C. F. Baldamus of Germany, and promoted by the German engineer and entrepreneur Carl Wilhelm Siemens, later known in England as William Siemens. Siemens went into partnership with the English engineer Joseph Woods, who developed the process and received British Patent No. 10,219 in 1844 for "Improvements in Producing Designs and Copies, and in Multiplying Impressions either of Printed or Written Surfaces." In the patent, which included 3 large folding engineering plans of machinery used, Woods proposed to call the process "anastatic printing." The process was rapidly adopted and used under other names such as "photozincography." 

On April 12, 1845 American writer, poet, editor, literary critic, and magazinist Edgar Allan Poe published in the Broadway Journal I, 229-231 an article entitled "Anastatic Printing."  With this new process of facsimile reproduction Poe foresaw huge advantages over the stereotype process, as anastatic printing plates could be produced quickly and cheaply, obviating the need to store bulky stereotype plates or flong.  He foresaw an increase in the production of pirated editions since anyone with anastatic equipment could reproduce any book they wanted.  Poe also believed that anastatic technology would enable authors to write out and publish their own books as facsimiles of manuscripts, including drawings, avoiding the costly and time-consuming typesetting process. 

Here is what Poe wrote:

"It is admitted by every one that of late there has been a rather singular invention, called Anastatic Printing, and that this invention may possibly lead, in the course of time, to some rather remarkable results — among which the one chiefly insisted upon, is the abolition of the ordinary stereotyping process: — but this seems to be the amount, in America at least, of distinct understanding on this subject.

" 'There is no exquisite beauty,' says Bacon, 'without some strangeness in the proportions.' The philosopher had reference, here, to beauty in its common acceptation; but the remark is equally applicable to all the forms of beauty — that is to say, to everything which arouses profound interest in the heart or intellect of man. In every such thing, strangeness — in other words novelty — will be found a principal element; and so universal is this law that it has no exception even in the case of this principal element itself. Nothing, unless it be novel — not even novelty itself — will be the source of very intense excitement among men. Thus the ennyue who travels in the hope of dissipating his ennui by the perpetual succession of novelties, will invariably be disappointed in the end. He receives the impression of novelty so continuously that it is at length no novelty to receive it. And the man, in general, of the nineteenth century — more especially of our own particular epoch of it — is very much in the predicament of the traveller in question. We are so habituated to new inventions, that we no longer get from newness the vivid interest which should appertain to the new — and no example could be adduced more distinctly showing that the mere importance of a novelty will not suffice to gain for it universal attention, than we find in the invention of Anastatic Printing. It excites not one fiftieth part of the comment which was excited by the comparatively frivolous invention of Sennefelder [sic]; — but he lived in the good old days when a novelty was novel. Nevertheless, while Lithography opened the way for a very agreeable pastime, it is the province of Anastatic Printing to revolutionize the world.

"By means of this discovery anything written, drawn, or printed, can be made to stereotype itself, with absolute accuracy, in five minutes.

"Let us take, for example, a page of this Journal; supposing only one side of the leaf to have printing on it. We dampen the leaf with a certain acid diluted, and then place it between two leaves of blotting-paper to absorb superfluous moisture. We then place the printed side in contact with a zinc plate that lies on the table. The acid in the interspaces between the letters, immediately corrodes the zinc, but the acid on the letters themselves, has no such effect, having been neutralized by the ink. Removing the leaf at the end of five minutes, we find a reversed copy, in slight relief, of the printing on the page; — in other words, we have a stereotype-plate, from which we can print a vast number of absolute facsimiles of the original printed page — which latter has not been at all injured in the process — that is to say, we can still produce from it (or from any impression of the stereotype plate) new stereotype plates ad libitum. Any engraving, or any pen-and-ink drawing, or any MS. can be stereotyped in precisely the same manner.

The facts of the invention are established. The process is in successful operation both in London and Paris. We have seen several specimens of printing done from the plates described, and have now lying before us a leaf (from the London Art-Union) covered with drawing, MS., letter-press, and impressions from wood-cuts, -the whole printed from the Anastatic stereotypes, and warranted by the Art-Union to be absolute fac-similes of the originals. The process can scarcely be regarded as a new invention, — and appears to be rather the modification and successful application of two or three previously ascertained principles -those of etching, electrography, lithography, etc. It follows from this that there will be much difficulty in establishing or maintaining a right of patent, and the probability is that the benefits of the process will soon be thrown open to the world. As to the secret — it can only be a secret in name. 

"That the discovery (if we may so call it) has been made can excite no surprise in any thinking person — the only matter for surprise is, that it has not been made many years ago. The obviousness of the process, however, in no degree lessens its importance. Indeed its inevitable results enkindle the imagination, and embarrass the understanding. Every one will perceive, at once, that the ordinary process of stereotyping will be abolished. Through this ordinary process, a publisher, to be sure, is enabled to keep on hand the means of producing edition after edition of any work the certainty of whose sale will justify the cost of stereotyping — which is trifling in comparison with that of re-setting the matter. But still, positively, this cost (of stereotyping) is great. Moreover, there cannot always be certainty about sales. Publishers frequently are forced to reset works which they have neglected to stereotype, thinking them unworthy the expense ; and many excellent works are not published at all, because small editions do not pay, and the anticipated sales will not warrant the cost of stereotype. Some of these difficulties will be at once remedied by the Anastatic Printing, and all will be remedied in a brief time. A publisher has only to print as many copies as are immediately demanded. He need print no more than a dozen, indeed, unless he feels perfectly confident of success. Preserving one copy, he can from this, at no other cost than that of the zinc, produce with any desirable rapidity, as many impressions as he may think proper. Some idea of the advantages thus accruing may be gleaned from the fact that in several of the London publishing warehouses there is deposited in stereotype plates alone, property to the amount of a million sterling.

"The next view of the case, in point of obviousness, is, that, if necessary, a hundred thousand impressions per hour, or even infinitely more, can be taken of any newspaper, or similar publication. As many presses can be put in operation as the occasion may require : — indeed there can be no limit to the number of copies producible, provided we have no limit to the number of presses. The tendency of all this to cheapen information, to diffuse knowledge and amusement, and to bring before the public the very class of works which are most valuable, but least in circulation on account of unsaleability — is what need scarcely be suggested to any one. But benefits such as these are merely the immediate and most obvious — by no means the most important.

"For some years, perhaps, the strong spirit of conventionality — of conservatism — will induce authors in general to have recourse, as usual, to the setting of type. A printed book, now, is more sightly, and more legible, than any MS. and for some years the idea will not be overthrown that this state of things is one of necessity. But by degrees it will be remembered that, while MS. was a necessity, men wrote after such fashion that no books printed in modern times have surpassed their MSS. either in accuracy or in beauty. This consideration will lead to the cultivation of a neat and distinct style of handwriting — for authors will perceive the immense advantage of giving their own manuscripts directly to the public without the expensive interference of the type-setter, and the often ruinous intervention of the publisher. All that a man of letters need do, will be to pay some attention to legibility of MS., arrange his pages to suit himself, and stereotype them instantaneously, as arranged. He may intersperse them with his own drawings, or with anything to please his own fancy, in the certainty of being fairly brought before his readers, with all the freshness of his original conception about him.

"And at this point we are arrested by a consideration of infinite moment, although of a seemingly shadowy character. The cultivation of accuracy in MS., thus enforced, will tend with an inevitable impetus to every species of improvement in style — more especially in the points of concision and distinctness- and this again, in a degree even more noticeable, to precision of thought, and luminous arrangement of matter. There is a very peculiar and easily intelligible reciprocal influence between the thing written and the manner of writing — but the latter has the predominant influence of the two. The more remote effect on philosophy at large, which will inevitably result from improvement of style and thought in the points of concision, distinctness, and accuracy, need only be suggested to be conceived.

"As a consequence of attention being directed to neatness and beauty of MS., the antique profession of the scribe will be revived, affording abundant employment to women — their delicacy of organization fitting them peculiarly for such tasks. The female amanuensis, indeed, will occupy very nearly the position of the present male type-setter, whose industry will be diverted perforce into other channels.

"These considerations are of vital importance — but there is yet one beyond them all. The value of every book is a compound of its literary value and its physical or mechanical value as the product of physical labor applied to the physical material. But at present the latter value immensely predominates, even in the works of the most esteemed authors. It will be seen, however, that the new condition of things will at once give the ascendency to the literary value, and thus by their literary values will books come to be estimated among men. The wealthy gentleman of elegant leisure will lose the vantage-ground now afforded him, and will be forced to tilt on terms of equality with the poor devil author. At present the literary world is a species of anomalous Congress, in which the majority of the members are constrained to listen in silence while all the eloquence proceeds from a privileged few. In the new regime, the humblest will speak as often and as freely as the most exalted, and will be sure of receiving just that amount of attention which the intrinsic merit of their speeches may deserve.

"From what we have said it will be evident that the discovery of Anastatic Printing will not only not obviate the necessity of copy-right laws, and of international law in especial, but will render this necessity more imperative and more apparent. It has been shown that in depressing the value of the physique of a, book, the invention will proportionately elevate the value of its morale, and since it is the latter value alone which the copy-right laws are needed to protect, the necessity of the protection will be only the more urgent and more obvious than ever."

The American patent No. 4, 239  for"Improvement in Anastatic Printing" was granted to C. F. Baldamus and F. W. Siemens of Berlin, Prussia on October 25, 1845. 

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Possibly the First Book Written During Hand Typesetting Rather than on Paper 1843 – 1865

In March 2014 English antiquarian bookseller Simon Beattie drew the attention of the Ex-Libris newsgroup to a book he planned to exhibit at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair beginning on April 3, 2014. This book, which he characterized as "The first unwritten book," was published anonymously by writer and printer C. L. Lordan, "From the Press of J. Lordan, Romsey," England, in 1843. Beattie raised the question to the readers of Ex-Libris whether they knew of any earlier book composed by its author on the "composing stick," the tool used to compose lines of type when typesetting was done by hand, rather than on paper.

Lordan's book was entitled Colloquies, Desultory and Diverse, but Chiefly upon Poetry and Poets: Between an Elder, Enthusiastic, and an Apostle of the Law. It was an octavo (206 x 129 mm) in half-sheets, [4], iv, [2], 200pp. plus a colophon leaf. Beattie stated that the method of writing the book was mentioned in a printed inscription on the leaf preceding the title-page. This leaf reads, "From Circumstances Herinafter Adverted to, The Sixty Copies of this Orignal Edition are Dispensed on Customary 'Considerations.' "

According to Beattie,

"The explanation is provided in full in a long dedication to John Wilson (a.k.a. ‘Christopher North’), the Scottish critic who edited Blackwood’s Magazine: ‘Of the little volume before you, one individual has been the composer, and compositor and imprinter throughout … The pen has been a stranger to the prose part of its composition, and the scribe’s office subverted: — with the exception of acknowledged quotations, I have been unaided by a line of manuscript or other copy. There is a rhythmical extravaganza in the sixth chapter, which I very reluctantly
signalize in this place, because the skeleton of twenty lines of it, or thereabouts, was pen-traced; the composing-stick has otherwise been my sole mechanical 'help to composition'." 

"Included are ‘colloquies’ about Wordsworth and Shakespeare, and ‘twenty minutes talk about Milton’. The text was published in a trade edition the following year, where it was described as ‘the first unwritten book’. The identity of J. Lordan has not been specifically determined; the typography looks fairly normal throughout, save for the first leaf and the colophon, which are printed in a rather primitive type-face. C. L. Lordan’s name appears in the imprint of a number of later books of Romsey interest, but as a publisher rather than a printer.

"OCLC locates 5 copies (BL, Cambridge, Folger, Library of Congress, South Carolina."

Users of this database may have noticed that I sometimes collect copies of items that I write about, especially in the field of book history. That only 60 copies of this very unusual volume were issued, and from the very unusual printing location— the town of Romsey, appealed to me, and I was pleased to successfully order the book. When I wrote this database entry on March 27, 2014 I planned to pick it up at the New York Book Fair in April. 

Whether Lordan's book was actually the first book composed by its printer on the composing stick was unclear from responses that came from readers of Ex-Libris. My first thought was that I had heard, but never confirmed, that the French 18th century printer novelist / pornographer Nicolas-Edme Rétif may have done some of his writing directly on the composing stick. Whether he actually issued a complete book in this manner was unknown to me; perhaps I will have time to research the question some day.

Other books written on the composing stick mentioned by readers of Ex-Libris were:

1. Beattie mentioned that possibly certain works by the paper historian and printer Dard Hunter were written during the hand-typesetting process.

2. Rowan Gibbs wrote that "Benjamin Farjeon is said to have done this with the first edition of his first novel, Shadows on the Snow, published in Dunedin [New Zealand] at the end of 1865. He was working as a compositor on the Otago Daily Times."

3. Others indicated that various, presumably short works, had been written directly into type in various book arts projects in the past few decades. 

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Spencerian Script Begins 1848

Believing that America needed a style of penmanship that could be written quickly, legibly and elegantly for both business correspondence and personal letter-writing, in 1848 American educator and handwriting teacher Platt Rogers Spencer published, with Victor M. Rice, Spencer and Rice's System of Business and Ladies' Penmanship.

"Spencerian Script was developed in 1840, and began soon after to be taught in the school Spencer established specifically for that purpose. He quickly turned out graduates who left his school to start replicas of it abroad, and Spencerian Script thus began to reach the common schools. Spencer never saw the great success that his penmanship style enjoyed, having died in 1864, but his sons took upon themselves the mission of bringing their late father's dream to fruition.

"This they did by publishing and distributing Spencer's unpublished book, Spencerian Key to Practical Penmanship, in 1866. Spencerian Script became the standard across the United States and remained so until the 1920s when the spreading popularity of the typewriter rendered its use as a prime method of business communication obsolete" (Wikipedia article on Spencerian Script, accessed 09-19-2010).

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1850 – 1875

Paul Gustave Froment Invents the Micropantograph 1852 – 1862

In 1852 French inventor and engineer Paul Gustave Froment, builder of the original Foucault pendulum, invented the micropantograph. It operated by coupling two pantographs, not unlike the kind Thomas Jefferson used at Monticello to write in duplicate, so that their action was multiplied, allowing reductions of up to 6,250 times.

Perfected by N. Peters, a London banker and microscopist, the device was described in detail and illustrated in Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary II (1876) 1432, including:

"It was stated in 1862 by Mr. Farrants, that the Lord's Prayer, containing 223 letters (amen being omitted), had been written on glass with this instrument within the space of 1/356,000 square inch; at which rate the whole Bible might be inscribed within the 1/22 part of a square inch."

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Sholes, Soule, & Glidden Invent the First Device to Allow the Operator to Write Faster than a Person Writing by Hand 1868

Sholes and Glidden typewriter documentation.  The machine, patented on June 23, 1868, resembled "a cross between a piano and a kitchen table."

Sholes and Glidden typewriter as produced by E. Remington and Sons.


In 1868 American inventor, newspaper editor and politician Christopher Latham Sholes, and Samuel Soule, and Carlos Glidden invented the first practical typewriter in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This was the first device to allow the operator to write faster than a person writing by hand.

"Following a strike by compositors at his printing press, he tried building a machine for typesetting, but this was a failure and he quickly abandoned the idea. He arrived at the typewriter through a different route. His initial goal was to create a machine to number pages of a book, tickets, and so on. He began work on this at Kleinsteubers machine shop in Milwaukee, together with a fellow printer Samuel W. Soule, and they patented a numbering machine on November 13, 1866.

"Sholes and Soule showed their machine to Carlos Glidden, a lawyer and amateur inventor at the machine shop working on a mechanical plow, who wondered if the machine could not be made to produce letters and words as well. Further inspiration came in July 1867, when Sholes came across a short note in Scientific American describing the "Pterotype", a prototype typewriter that had been invented by John Pratt in England. Sholes decided that the pterotype was too complex and set out to make his own machine, whose name he got from the article: the typewriting machine, or typewriter.

"For this project, Soule was again enlisted, and Glidden joined them as a third partner who provided the funds. The Scientific American article had described a "literary piano"; the first model that the trio built had a keyboard literally resembling a piano. It had black keys and white keys, laid out in two rows. It did not contain keys for the numerals 0 or 1 because the letters O and I were deemed sufficient:

3 5 7 9 N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

2 4 6 8 . A B C D E F G H I J K L M

"with the first row made of ivory and the second of ebony, the rest of the framework being wooden. It was in this form that Sholes, Glidden and Soule were granted patents for their invention on on June 23, 1868 and July 14. The first document to be produced on a typewriter was a contract that Sholes had written, in his capacity as the Comptroller for the city of Milwaukee. Machines similar to Sholes's had been previously used by the blind for embossing, but by Sholes's time the inked ribbon had been invented, which made typewriting in its current form possible" (Wikipedia article on Christopher Sholes, accessed 05-22-2009).

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The Sholes & Glidden Type Writer, with the First QWERTY Keyboard 1873 – 1874

Latham Sholes's 1878 QWERTY keyboard layout

In 1872 the patent on the Sholes & Glidden Type Writer (U.S. patent 79,265, issued on June 23, 1868) was sold for $12,000 to Densmore and Yost, who licensed it to E. Remington & Sons, then famous as manufacturers of rifles and sewing machines. Remington started production of their first typewriter on March 1, 1873 in Ilion, New York. The machines, as first produced, were problematic in their operation.

The action of the type bars in the early typewriters were very sluggish and tended to jam frequently. To fix this problem, printer and publisher Christopher Sholes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin obtained a list of the most common letters used in English, and rearranged his keyboard from an alphabetic arrangement to one in which the most common pairs of letters were spread fairly far apart on the keyboard. Because typists at that time used the "hunt and peck" method, Sholes' arrangement increased the time it took for the typists to hit the keys for common two letter combinations enough to ensure that each type bar had enough time to fall back into place before the next one came up. This new arrangement, which Sholes invented in 1873, was named the Sholes QWERTY keyboard, and is still used today. Though Sholes had never imagined that typing would ever be faster than handwriting, which is usually 20 words per minute (WPM) or less, his invention with the QWERTY keyboard was the first machine to allow the operator to write faster than a person writing by hand.

When produced by Remington & Sons in 1874 Sholes's improved machine was called the “Sholes & Glidden Type Writer.” It had a keyboard with letters and numbers arranged in a four-line pattern (known as QWERTY from the first six letters in the top row), a wooden spacer bar, and a vulcanized india-rubber platen or roller. It only printed capital letters.

About 5000 of the Sholes & Glidden Type Writers were sold between 1874 and 1878, when Remington & Sons introduced the Remington 2,  the first typewriter to include both upper and lower case letters via a shift key.

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1875 – 1900

Edison Invents the "Electric Pen": Forerunner of the Mimeograph 1875

Thomas Edison's electric pen.

Edison's duplicating outfit with electric pen.

In 1875 Thomas Edison of Menlo Park, now Edison, New Jersey, invented the Electric Pen, the forerunner of the mimeograph. Edison received US patent 180,857 for "Autographic Printing" on August 8, 1876. The patent covered the electric pen, used for making the stencil, and the flatbed duplicating press. In 1880 Edison obtained a further patent, US 224,665: "Method of Preparing Autographic Stencils for Printing", which covered the making of stencils using a file plate, a grooved metal plate on which the stencil was placed which perforated the stencil when written on with a blunt metal stylus.

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Allowing the Typing of Both Upper and Lower Case Letters 1878

Remington Standard 2 typewriter.

In 1878 the Remington Model 2 typewriter, produced by the Remington Typewriter Co. of Ilion, New York, introduced a shift key, allowing the typing of both upper and lower case letters.

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Edison Describes Future Uses for his Phonograph June 1878

In an article published in the North American Review in June 1878 Thomas Edison described future uses for his phonograph, which he had invented on August 12, 1877:

  1. Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
  2. Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
  3. The teaching of elocution.
  4. Reproduction of music.
  5. The "Family Record"--a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of the last words of dying persons.
  6. Music-boxes and toys.
  7. Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc.
  8. The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
  9. Educational purposes; such as preserving the explanations made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory.
  10. Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication."
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"Paleographie des classiques latins" and its Digital, Updated Version 1884 – 1900

From 1884 to 1900 French librarian and paleographer Émile Chatelain issued Paléographie des classiques latins in 14 fascicules, the whole comprising more than 200 facsimiles of leaves from medieval manuscripts with explanatory text. The leaves reproduced ranged in date from the fourth to the fifteenth century. More than thirty classical authors were represented, with the facsimiles arranged chronologically by author. Often the page reproduced depicted a significant problem in the transmission of the text. Authors included were, according to the catalogue reference in OCLC in December 2013: 

"Vol. 1, Principaux manuscrits de Plaute, Térence, Varron, Catulle, Cicéron, César, Salluste, Lucrèce, Virgile, Horace.

"Vol. 2, Principaux manuscrits d'Ovide, Properce, Tibulle, Tite Live, Perse, Juvénal, Pline l'ancien, Pline le jeune, Tacite, Pétrone, Martial, Lucian, Stace Valerius Flaccus, Phèdre, Sénèque, Quintilien, Valère Maxime Cornélius Népos, Suétone, Justin, Quinte Curce, Histoire Auguste Aurelius Victor, Ammien Marcellin."

In 1902 Chatelain issued Uncialis scriptura codicum latinorum novis exemplis illustrata (Paris, 1902).

As a service to paleographers, and also to preserve their copies of the original printings, the University Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provided a website reproducing all of Chatelain's plates with his commentaries, and with references to more recent publications such as E. A. Lowe's, Codices Latini Antiquiores, that provided updated paleographical information. This I accessed in December 2013.

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Development of an Efficiently Functioning Fountain Pen Circa February 12, 1884

Though efforts to invent a fountain pen occurred much earlier, efficiently functioning fountain pens were developed in several places by several different inventors from the 1850s through 1880s.

"Starting in the 1850s there was a steadily accelerating stream of fountain pen patents and pens in production. It was only after three key inventions were in place, however, that the fountain pen became a widely popular writing instrument. Those inventions were the iridium-tipped gold nib, hard rubber, and free-flowing ink" (Wikipedia article on Fountain Pen, accessed 04-15-2011).

The development of free-flowing ink was the invention of the American insurance salesman Lewis E. Waterman of New York City who employed the capillarity principle to allow air to induce a steady and even flow of ink in his fountain pen, receiving U.S. patent number 293545 in February 1884. Waterman's mechanism allowed a careful balance between ink leaving the pen and air entering:

"The downward flow of the ink by gravity and through the action of capillary attraction in the act of writing causes it to pass through [a] groove, and tends to create a vacuum within the reservoir, which is met by the influx of air passing upward through the groove. The direction of the current of air entering the ink-reservoir being opposite to that of the outflowing ink, the volume of the latter is somewhat lessened, and excessive discharge prevented" (Patent 293545).

♦ Thanks to Norman Hills for suggesting this entry and supplying key information.

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The Berne Convention September 9, 1886

The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, an international agreement governing copyright, was ratified in Berne, Switzerland on September 9, 1886.

"The Berne Convention was developed at the instigation of Victor Hugo of the Association Littéraire et Artistique Internationale. Thus it was influenced by the French "right of the author" (droit d'auteur), which contrasts with the Anglo-Saxon concept of "copyright" which only dealt with economic concerns. Under the Convention, copyrights for creative works are automatically in force upon their creation without being asserted or declared. An author need not "register" or "apply for" a copyright in countries adhering to the Convention. As soon as a work is "fixed", that is, written or recorded on some physical medium, its author is automatically entitled to all copyrights in the work and to any derivative works, unless and until the author explicitly disclaims them or until the copyright expires. Foreign authors are given the same rights and privileges to copyrighted material as domestic authors in any country that signed the Convention."

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Gregg Shorthand is Introduced 1888 – 1988

In 1888 John Robert Gregg published Light-Line Phonography. The Phonetic Handwriting, describing Gregg shorthand A 28-page pamphlet, the first edition was issued in Liverpool, England, by the Light-Line Phonography Institute. Gregg's system used the curvilinear motion of longhand writing while employing phonetic rather than alphabetic spelling. It also placed all components on the same line rather than above or below the line, thus maintaining the natural flow of the writing.  These factors represented significant advantages over other shorthand systems.

Gregg shorthand was adapted to many languages, but was most popular in its Spanish adaptation. The final edition of Gregg shorthand, known as the Centennial edition, was published in 1988.

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The Telautograph July 31, 1888

Inventor Elisha Gray of Highland Park, Illinois received the first of six patents for the Telautograph, an early precursor of the fax machine.  

The telautograph transmitted electrical impulses recorded by potentiometers at the sending station to servomechanisms attached to a pen at the receiving station, reproducing a drawing or signature made by the sender at the receiving station.  It was the first device to transmit drawings to a stationary sheet of paper; previous inventions in Europe had used rotating drums to record these transmissions.

In an interview in The Manufacturer & Builder (Vol. 24: No. 4 (1888) 5–86) Gray made this statement:

"By my invention you can sit down in your office in Chicago, take a pencil in your hand, write a message to me, and as your pencil moves, a pencil here in my laboratory moves simultaneously, and forms the same letters and words in the same way. What you write in Chicago is instantly reproduced here in fac-simile. You may write in any language, use a code or cipher, no matter, a fac-simile is produced here. If you want to draw a picture it is the same, the picture is reproduced here. The artist of your newspaper can, by this device, telegraph his pictures of a railway wreck or other occurrences just as a reporter telegraphs his description in words. The telautograph became very popular for the transmission of signatures over a distance, and in banks and large hospitals to ensure that doctors' orders and patient information were transmitted quickly and accurately" (quoted in Wikipedia article on Telautograph, accessed 03-02-2011).

Gray's patents on the telautograph are:

Gray, Elisha. "Art of Telegraphy", United States Patent 386,814, July 31, 1888.

Gray, Elisha. "Telautograph", United States Patent 386,815, July 31, 1888.

Gray, Elisha. "Telautograph", United States Patent 461,470, October 20, 1891.

Gray, Elisha. "Art of and Apparatus for Telautographic Communication", United States Patent 461,472, October 20, 1891.

Gray, Elisha. "Telautograph", United States Patent 491,347, February 7, 1893.

Gray, Elisha. "Telautograph", United States Patent 494,562, April 4, 1893.

Jean Renard Ward, History of Pen and Gesture Computing http://rwservices.no-ip.info:81/pens/biblio70.html#Gray1888b, accessed 03-02-2011

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The Palmer Method 1894

In 1894 American educator and handwriting teacher Austin Norman Palmer of Cedar Rapids, Iowa published Palmer's Guide to Business Writing, describing a uniform system of cursive writing with rhythmic motions. The 46-page pamphlet, reproducing many examples, was issued by Palmer's Western Penman Publishing Co.

"Palmer's method involved 'muscle motion' in which the more proximal muscles of the arm were used for movement, rather than allowing the fingers to move in writing. In spite of opposition from the major textbook companies, this textbook enjoyed great success: in 1912, 1,000,000 copies were sold throughout the country. The method garnered awards, including the Gold Medal at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, California, in 1915, and the Gold Medal at the Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1926.

"Palmer's style fell out of popularity and was replaced by a movement to teach children manuscript before teaching them cursive, in order to provide them with a means of written expression as soon as possible and thus develop writing skills. This effectively reduced the emphasis on handwriting in elementary school . . . . " (Wikipedia article on Palmer Method, accessed 09-19-2010).

When I was taught to write c. 1950 I was taught the Palmer Method.

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Lewis Carroll Wrote or Received 98,000 Letters January 14, 1898

On January 14, 1898 the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the English author, mathematician, logician, Anglican clergyman, and photographer, best known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll, died. He had spent nearly his entire life at Christ Church College, Oxford, in various capacities. In addition to his published writings, which included Alice in Wonderland, Dodgson maintained a meticulous ledger recording his incoming and outgoing correspondence over his lifetime. As a reflection of how many letters an individual could exchange in this era before telephone, Dodgson/Carroll wrote or received approximately 98,000 letters.

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1900 – 1910

Probably the First History of Ink, by a Celebrated Questioned Documents Examiner 1904

In 1904 David N[unes] Carvalho, a questioned documents examiner of ink, handwriting and paper in New York City, of Sephardic Jewish descent, issued what appears to be the first extensive history of ink, with the following verbose explanatory title: 

Forty Centuries of Ink, or A Chronological Narrative Concerning Ink and its Backgrounds, Intoducing Incidental Observations and Deductions, Parallels of Time and Color Phenomena, Bibliography, Chemistry, Poetical Effusions, Citations, Anecdotes and Curiosa Together with Some Evidence Respecting the Evanescent Character of Most Inks of To-Day and an Epitome of Chemico-Legal Ink.

Carvaho's book was published by the Banks Law Publishing Company of New York, and appeared in the standard dark yellowish brown buckram binding with red and black labels on the spine. Written before the widespread use of typewriters, when virtually all legal documents were handwritten, the study of ink was applied more frequently in legal cases than it is today, when so many legal documents are wordprocessed. Yet some of the issues still apply to handwritten legal documents, or any documents on paper. 

This book came to my attention when in 2014 I ordered a copy of the first edition that contained a handwritten letter from Carvalho to William G. Pengelly, whose signature is on the front free endpaper of my copy. Pengelly also made neat notes in pencil, indexing to pages of interest on the back rear pastedown endpaper.

Carvalho's letter reads as follows:

New York, March 2, 1905.

Wm. G. Pengelly Esq,

My dear Sir:- Per your request I append my autograph to these lines for insertion in "Forty Centuries of Ink, They are written with a Tanno-gallate of Iron ink without added color. May success corwn your effots in the establishment of an official ink for the state of Ohio.


David N. Carvalho.

In looking up the word "Tanno-gallate" online I was surprised to find a Carvhalho's personal explanation of the term in a transcript of his very interesting testamony published in Documents of the State of New York, Vol. 16, Proceedings of the Senate in the Matter of Investigation Demanded by Senator Jotham P. Allds (1910), pp. 1923-1941. Carvalho's definition appears on p. 1924:

"Q. Would you say in a few words what you mean by tanno-gallate of iron ink? A. Gallate acid is found ready made in the bark of some oak tree in connection with tanno. But it is best found in a little excrescence on certain oak trees due to a puncture by a female wasp, making what is called, after the bud dies, what is called gall nuts. Now in that gall nut is found gallate anno acid. Gallo tanic acid when brought into contact with iron, with sulphate of iron, forms the compound which was used in our father's time known as ink, when it was suspended in water by the use of a little gum. The inks, however, of to-day, which are known as chemical writing fluids, are not what we call oxidized inks, as they were in olden times, before bottling. But there is put into the ink as made to-day, by a cold process and not by a boiling process, what we designate as a provisional color, mostly blue, so that when you write first, the ink writes blue, and after a period of time the tanno-gallate of iron, which has an affinity for the oxygen of the atmosphere, begins to blacken and overcomes the blue coloring matter. That blue coloring matter, however, which is aniline—and aniline is a generic term for certain by-products of coal tar, is fugitive in character—that is to say, does not loosen, and after a period of time that blue which is in the ink gradually disappears, leaving the oxidized iron ink present. That is what we mean by a tanno-galle of iron ink, where something taken from nut galls is brought into union with sulphate of iron."

An issue in the legal case in which Carvalho testified was the dating of writing in documents that could be calculated by the level of fading of the blue provisional color. Thus, for permanence of records, Carvalho recommended using "Tanno-gallate of Iron ink" wihout added color, and one of his pet projects was to lobby governments of the various states to standardize ink for permanence. William Pengelly, to whom Carvalho addressed his letter, was a questioned documents examiner in Ohio. From Carvalho's letter we may assume that Pengelly was also attempting to get the government of Ohio to standardize ink used in state documents at the time.

After Carvalho's death his daughter Clare published Crime in Ink, co-authored with Boyden Sparkes. (1929). This work recounted some of Carvalho's most notable cases, including his participation exonerating Dreyfus in the Dreyfus Affair.  Most of Carvalho's cases described in involved unfaithful spouses and disputed wills. Claire noted that 'long before his career had passed its zenith my father estimated that he had affected the courts’ decision as to the ownership and possession of property aggregating over $200,000,000.' This amount, adjusted for more than 100 years of inflation, amounted to over $4.5 billion in 2014.

Carvalho was also a rare book collector; Dodd, Mead offered his collection of 15th and 16th century books for sale for $10,000 in 1911 in A Catalogue of the David N. Carvalho Collection of Incunabula Consisting of a Sequence of Dated Books, 1470-1499, together with a Number of Sixteenth Century Books  The unusually thorough bibliographical catalogue contained a preface by Carvalho.

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1930 – 1940

The First Commercially Successful Ballpoint Pen 1931 – June 15, 1938

In 1931 Lázló Biró, a Hungarian newspaper editor frustrated by the amount of time wasted filling up fountain pens and cleaning up smudged pages, noticed that the ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge-free. He tried using the same ink in a fountain pen but found that it would not flow into the tip, as it was too viscous. Working with his brother Georg, a chemist, Biró developed a new tip consisting of a tiny ball that was free to turn in a socket, which would pick up ink from a cartridge as it turned, and then roll to deposit it on the paper. He presented the first production of the ball pen at the Budapest International Fair in 1931, and patented it in Paris in 1938. This was the first commercially successful ballpoint pen, still known in England as a "Biro."

"Earlier pens leaked or clogged due to improper viscosity of the ink, and depended on gravity to deliver the ink to the ball. Depending on gravity caused difficulties with the flow and required that the pen be held nearly vertically. The Biro pen both pressurized the ink column and used capillary action for ink delivery, solving the flow problems."

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IBM Markets the First Commercially Successful Electric Typewriter 1933

In 1933 IBM marketed the first commercially successful electric typewriter, the Electromatic.

IBM produced electric typewriters until 1990.

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1940 – 1950

Sealing of the Crypt of Civilization May 25, 1940

On May 25, 1940 Presbyterian minister and president of Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven, GeorgiaThornwell Jacobs sealed the Oglethorpe Atlanta Crypt of Civilization in a cermony broadcast on Atlanta's WSB radio.  It was intended to be opened on May 28, 8113 CE.

Modelled after a chamber in an Egyptian pyramid, the Crypt of Civilization was a subterranean chamber, twenty feet long, ten feet wide, and ten feet high. Among the many elements of the time capsule were  microfilm media (film and thin metal) used to store written information, recorded sound, and moving pictures in the capsule. Apparently little or no print on paper material was included even though by the time of the creation of the capsule there was already sufficient evidence that print on paper, or writing on parchment, had survived for several thousand years, while microfilm or microform media was new and untested for durability.

"In this room had been a swimming pool, the foundation of which was impervious to water. The floor was raised with concrete with a heavy layer of damp proofing applied. The gallery's extended granite walls were lined with vitreous porcelain enamel embedded in pitch. The crypt had a two-foot thick stone floor and a stone roof seven feet thick. Jacobs consulted the Bureau of Standards in Washington for technical advice for storing the contents of the crypt. Inside would be sealed stainless steel receptacles with glass linings, filled with the inert gas of nitrogen to prevent oxidation or the aging process. A stainless steel door would seal the crypt."

"Articles on the crypt in the New York Times caught the attention of Thomas Kimmwood Peters (1884-1973), an inventor and photographer of versatile experience. Peters had been the only newsreel photographer to film the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. He had worked at Karnak and Luxor, Peters was also the inventor of the first microfilm camera using 35 millimeter film to photograph documents. In 1937 Jacobs appointed Peters as archivist of the crypt." 

"From 1937 to 1940, Peters and a staff of student assistants conducted an ambitious microfilming project. The cellulose acetate base film would be placed in hermetically sealed receptacles. Peters believed, based on the Bureau of Standards testing, that the scientifically stored film would last for six centuries; he took however, as a method of precaution, a duplicate metal film, thin as paper. Inside the crypt are microfilms of the greatest classics, including the Bible, the Koran, the Iliad, and Dante's Inferno. Producer David O. Selznick donated an original copy of the script of 'Gone With the Wind.' There are more than 640,000 pages of microfilm from over eight hundred works on the arts and sciences. Peters also used similar methods for capturing and for storing still and motion pictures. Voice recordings of political leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Roosevelt were included, as were voice recordings of Popeye the Sailor and a champion hog caller. To view and to hear these picture and sound records, Peters placed in the vault electric machines, microreaders, and projectors. In the event that electricity would not be in use in 8113 A.D., there is in the crypt a generator operated by a windmill to drive the apparatus as well as a seven power magnifier to read the microbook records by hand. The first item one would see upon entering the chamber is a thoughtful precaution-a machine to teach the English language so that the works would be more readily decipherable if found by people of a strange tongue.

"Thornwell Jacobs envisioned the crypt as a synoptic compilation and thus aimed for a whole 'museum' of not only accumulated formal knowledge of over six thousand years, but also 1930s popular culture. The list of items in the crypt is seemingly endless. All of the items were donated, with contributors as diverse as King Gustav V of Sweden and the Eastman Kodak Company. Some of the more curious items Peters included in the crypt were plastic toys - a Donald Duck, the Lone Ranger, and a Negro doll, as well as a set of Lincoln Logs. Peters also arranged with Anheuser Busch for a specially sealed ampule of Budweiser beer. The chamber of the crypt when finally finished in the spring of 1940, resembled a cell of an Egyptian pyramid, cluttered with artifacts on shelves and on the floor" (http://www.oglethorpe.edu/about_us/crypt_of_civilization/history_of_the_crypt.asp, accessed 04-22-2011). 

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IBM Introduces a Typewriter with Proportional Spacing 1941

In 1941 IBM announced the Electromatic Model 04 electric typewriter, featuring proportional spacing. By assigning varied rather than uniform spacing to different sized characters, the Type 4 recreated the appearance of a printed page, an effect that was enhanced by a typewriter ribbon innovation that produced clearer, sharper words on the page.

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1950 – 1960

The Bic Pen 1950

After purchasing the patent for the ballpoint pen from Lázló Biró (who had been producing ballpoints in Argentina since 1943), in 1950 Marcel Bich produced the very inexpensive Bic Cristal in Clichy, Hauts-de-Seine, France.

"A Bic Cristal ballpoint pen contains enough ink to draw a continuous line up to two miles (3.2 km) long. In 2005, Bic sold its hundred billionth ballpoint pen - enough ink to draw a line to Pluto and back more than 20 times."

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Publication of Chartae Latinae Antiquiores Begins 1954

Under the editorship of Albert Bruckner and Robert Marichal publication of the Chartae Latinae Antiquiores by Urs Graf Verlag in Dietikon, Switzerland, began in 1954.

Intended as supplement the Codices Latini Antiquiores of E.A. Lowe, the CLA constitutes a photographic catalogue of all Latin 'literary' manuscripts rather than codices, written on papyrus or parchment, which antedate 800 CE. It was necessary to provide a codicological description of each one of them and a photograph of some lines each. The 49th and last volume in this series appeared in 1997.

The second series (ChLA2), founded by Guglielmo Cavallo and Giovanna Nicolaj,  and beginning with volume 50, intends to publish all the documents surviving from 800 to 900 CE preserved in European archives and libraries. The first phase of the project dedicated to Italy reached Volume 75. Including the Appendix it will be completed with Volume 99. Volume 100 marks the beginning of the series dedicated to St. Gall, with 13 volumes the largest collection of charters besides Italy. The publication of the charters should eventually be extended to the other European countries. 

♦ The Chartae Latinae Antiquiores database can be searched online at: http://www.urs-graf-verlag.com/index.php?funktion=chla_suche.

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1960 – 1970

"Colossal Typewriter" : One of the Earliest Computer Text Editors December 1960

Colossal Typewriter, a program written by John McCarthy and Roland Silver running on the DEC PDP-1 at Bolt Beranek and Newman in December 1960, was one of the earliest computer text editors. 

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"Compatible Time Sharing System," Precursor of Word Processing and Email 1961

In 1961 Fernando J. Corbató and team at MIT developed one of the first time-sharing operating systems, CTSS (Compatible Time-Sharing System.)

CTSS had one of the first computerized text formatting utilities, called RUNOFF, the precursor of word processing, and one of the first inter-user messaging implementations, presaging instant messaging and electronic mail.

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"Expensive Typewriter": The First Word Processing Program 1961 – 1962

Expensive Typewriter, a text editing program written in 1961-62 for the DEC PDP-1 at MIT by Stephen D. Piner, has been called the first word processing program. It could drive an IBM Selectric typewriter, and was called "expensive" because the DEC PDP-1, the first minicomputer, then cost $100,000.  The name was also taken in the spirit of a 1960 computer text editor called Colossal Typewriter.

♦ In December 2013 a report on the program written by Stephen Piner and dated August 1, 1972 was available the Computer History Museum at this link.

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IBM's Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter Begins "Word Processing" 1964

In 1964 IBM introduced the Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter (MT/ST).

"With this, for the first time, typed material could be edited without having to retype the whole text or chop up a coded copy. On the tape, information could be stored, replayed (that is, retyped automatically from the stored information), corrected, reprinted as many times as needed, and then erased and reused for other projects.

"This development marked the beginning of word processing as it is known today. It also introduced word processing as a definite idea and concept. The term was first used in IBM's marketing of the MT/ST as a 'word processing' machine. It was a translation of the German word textverabeitung, coined in the late 1950s by Ulrich Steinhilper, an IBM engineer. He used it as a more precise term for what was done by the act of typing. IBM redefined it 'to describe electronic ways of handling a standard set of office activities -- composing, revising, printing, and filing written documents.' "

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The Rand Tablet: One of the Earliest Tablet Computers and the First Reference to Electronic Ink August 1964

In August 1964 M. R. Davis and T. O. Ellis of The Rand Corporation, Santa Monica, California, published The RAND Tablet: A Machine Graphical Communication DeviceThey indicated that the device had been in use since 1963.

"The RAND table is believed to be the first such graphic device that is digital, is relatively low-cost, possesses excellent linearity, and is able to uniquely describe 10 [to the 6th power] locations in the 10" x 10" active table area. . . . the tablet has great potential no only in such applications as digitizing map information, but also as a working tool in the study of more esoteric applications of graphical languages for man-machine interaction. . . . " (p.iv)

"The RAND tablet device generates 10-bit x and 10-bit y stylus position information. It is connected to an input channel of a general-purpose computer and also to an oscilloscope display. The display control multiplexes the stylus position information with computer-generated information in such a way that the oscilloscope display contains a composite of the current pen position (represented as a dot) and the computer output. In addition, the computer may regenerate meaningful track history on the CRT, so that while the user is writing, it appears that the pen has "ink." This displayed "ink" is visualized from the oscilloscope display while hand-directing the stylus position on the tablet. users normally adjust within a few minutes to the conceptual superposition of the displayed ink and the actual off-screen pen movement. There is no apparent loss of ease or speed in writing, printing, constructing arbitrary figures, or even in penning one's signature" (pp. 2-3).

J. W. Ward, History of Pen Computing: Annotated Bibliography in On-line Character Recognition and Pen Computing: http://rwservices.no-ip.info:81/pens/biblio70.html#DavisMR64 , accessed 12-30-2009).

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TYPESET and RUNOFF: Text Formatting Program and Forerunner of Word Processors November 6, 1964

In November 1964 computer scientist Jerome H. Salzer of MIT wrote TYPESET and RUNOFF, memorandum editor and type-out commmandsRUNOFF was the first computer text formatting program to see significant use. It's formatting commands derived from the commands used by typesetters to manually format documents.

"It actually consisted of a pair of programs, TYPSET (which was basically a document editor), and RUNOFF (the output processor). RUNOFF had support for pagination and headers, as well as text justification (TJ-2 appears to have been the earliest text justification system, but it did not have the other capabilities).

"RUNOFF is a direct predecessor of the runoff document formatting program of Multics, which in turn was the ancestor of the roff and nroff document formatting programs of Unix, and their descendants. It was also the ancestor of FORMAT for the IBM System/360, and of course indirectly for every computerized word processing system.

"Likewise, RUNOFF for CTSS was the predecessor of the various RUNOFFs for DEC's operating systems, via the RUNOFF developed by the University of California, Berkeley's Project Genie for the SDS 940 system.

"The name is alleged to have come from the phrase at the time, I'll run off a copy" (Wikipedia article on TYPESET and RUNOFF, accessed 01-31-2010).

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Tom Van Vleck & Noel Morris Write One of the First Email Programs 1965

Though its exact history is murky, email (e-mail) began as a way for users on time-sharing mainframe computers to communicate. Among the first systems to have an email facility were System Development Corporation of Santa Monica's programming for the AN/FSQ-32  (Q32) built by IBM for the United States Air Force Strategic Air Command (SAC), and MIT's Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS). The authors of the first email program for CTSS were American software engineer Tom Van Vleck and American computer scientist Noel Morris. The two men created the program in the summer of 1965.

"A proposed CTSS MAIL command was described in an undated Programming Staff Note 39 by Louis Pouzin, Glenda Schroeder, and Pat Crisman. Numerical sequence places the note in either Dec 64 or Jan 65. PSN 39 proposed a facility that would allow any CTSS user to send a message to any other. The proposed uses were communication from "the system" to users informing them that files had been backed up, and communication to the authors of commands with criticisms, and communication from command authors to the CTSS manual editor.

"I was a new member of the MIT programming staff in spring 1965. When I read the PSN document about the proposed CTSS MAIL command, I asked "where is it?" and was told there was nobody available to write it. My colleague Noel Morris and I wrote a version of MAIL for CTSS in the summer of 1965. Noel was the one who saw how to use the features of the new CTSS file system to send the messages, and I wrote the actual code that interfaced with the user. The CTSS manual writeup and the source code of MAIL are available online. (We made a few changes from the proposal during the course of implementation: e.g. to read one's mail, users just used the PRINT command instead of a special argument to MAIL.)  

"The idea of sending "letters' using CTSS was resisted by management, as a waste of resources. However, CTSS Operations did need a faclility to inform users when a request to retrieve a file from tape had been completed, and we proposed MAIL as a solution for this need. (Users who had lost a file due to system or user error, or had it deleted for inactivity, had to submit a request form to Operations, who ran the RETRIEVE program to reload them from tape.) Since the blue 7094 installation in Building 26 had no CTSS terminal available for the operators, one proposal for sending such messages was to invoke MAIL from the 7094 console switches, inputting a code followed by the problem number and programmer number in BCD. I argued that this was much too complex and error prone, and that a facility that let any user send arbitrary messages to any other would have more general uses, which we would discover after it was implemented" (http://www.multicians.org/thvv/mail-history.html, accessed 06-20-2011).

♦ On June 19, 2011 writer and filmmaker Errol Morris published a series of five illustrated articles in The New York Times concerning the roles of his brother Noel and Tom Van Vleck in the invention of email. The first of these was entitled "Did My Brother Invent E-Mail with Tom Van Vleck? (Part One)". The articles, in an usual dialog form, captured some of the experience of programming time-sharing mainframes, and what it was like to send and receive emails at this early date.

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Douglas Engelbart Demonstrates Hypertext, Text Editing, Windows, Email and a Mouse: "The Mother of All Demos" December 9, 1968

On December 8, 1968 Douglas Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute, Menlo Park, California, presented a 100 minute demonstration  at the San Francisco Convention Center of an “oNLine System” (NLS), the features of which included hypertext, text editing, screen windowing, and email. To make this system operate, Engelbart used the mouse which he had invented the previous year.

In December 2013 numerous still images, a complete video stream of the demo, and 35 brief flash streaming video clips of different segments, were available from the Engelbart Collection at Stanford University at this link

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IBM Introduces the Generalized Markup Language (GML) Circa 1969

Around 1969 IBM introduced the Generalized Markup Language, GML, developed by Charles Goldfarb, Edward Mosher and Raymond Lorie, whose surname initials were used by Goldfarb to make up the term GML. GML was"a set of macros that implemented intent-based markup tags for the IBM text formatter, "'SCRIPT.' SCRIPT was the main component of IBM's Document Composition Facility (DCF). A starter set of tags in GML was provided with the DCF product.

"GML simplifies the description of a document in terms of its format, organization structure, content parts and their relationship, and other properties. GML markup (or tags) describes such parts as chapters, important sections, and less important sections (by specifying heading levels), paragraphs, lists, tables, and so forth." (Wikipedia article on IBM Generalized Markup Language, accessed 12-21-2008).

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1970 – 1980

Ray Tomlinson Selects the @ in Email March 1971

In March 1971 Ray Tomlinson at Bolt, Beranek and Newman developed email for ARPANET: SNDMSG and READMAIL, choosing the “@” sign as a key email address component.

According to an infographic on the history of email posted at http://8.mshcdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/email.png in June 2011, Tomlinson no longer remembered the content of the original message.

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Lawrence Roberts Writes the First Email Management Program July 1971

In July 1971 Lawrence G. Roberts of ARPA in Arlington, Virginia, wrote the first email management program, RD, to list incoming messages and support forwarding, filing, and responding to them.

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The First Electronic Pagination System, Forerunner of Email and Instant Messaging 1973

Atex, founded in Massachusetts in 1973, worked with the Minneapolis Star newspaper to develop the first electronic pagination system that allowed the creation and output of full editorial pages, eliminating the need for manual paste-up of strips of film.

The Atex system featured "Atex Messaging" which is widely believed to be the forerunner of both email and instant messenger applications. Atex publishing systems were "based on highly modified Dec PDP-11 minicomputers, designed to produce news sections of newspapers. The systems included clustered CPUs, a distributed file system and dumb terminals that displayed memory-mapped video and featured keyboards with up to 140 keys: Distinctively, the cursor keys were on the left-hand side. A custom operating system tied everything together."

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Landmarks in the Prehistory and Early History of Microsoft April 4, 1975 – November 20, 1985

In Seattle, Washington, from 1973-74 high school students Bill Gates and Paul Allen, and Paul Gilbert founded a partnership called Traf-O-Data. The objective was to read the raw data from roadway traffic counters and create reports for traffic engineers. Even though this initial project was not a success, the experience that Gates and Allen gained in writing software for a non-existent computer they applied shortly thereafter in writing software for the MITS Altair. 

"Bill Gates and Paul Allen were high school students at Lakeside School in Seattle. The Lakeside Programmers Group got free computer time on various computers in exchange for writing computer programs. Gates and Allen thought they could process the traffic data cheaper and faster than the local companies. They recruited classmates to manually read the hole-patterns in the paper tape and transcribe the data onto computer cards. Gates then used a computer at the University of Washington to produce the traffic flow charts. (Paul Allen's father was a librarian at UW.) This was the beginning of Traf-O-Data.

"The next step was to build a device to read the traffic tapes directly and eliminate the tedious manual work. The Intel 8008 microprocessor was announced in 1972 and they realized it could read the tapes and process the data. Allen had graduated and was enrolled at Washington State University. Since neither Gates nor Allen had any hardware design experience they were initially stumped. The computer community in Seattle at that time was relatively small. Gates and Allen had a friend, Paul Wennberg who like them had hung around CDC Corporation near the University of Washington cadging open time on the mainframe. Wennberg, founder of the Triakis Corporation, was then an electrical engineering student at the University of Washington. In the course of events Gates and Allen mentioned they were looking for somebody to build them a computer for free. They needed somebody good enough to build a computer from parts and the diagrams found in a computer magazine. It was Wennberg who came up with the man to do just that. After discussion with another friend, Wes Prichard, Prichard suggested to Wennberg that Gates and Allen head over UW Physics building to where Gilbert, another EE student worked in the high-energy tracking lab. It was there that Paul Gilbert was approached by the duo to become a partner in Traf-O-Data. That year Gilbert, piece by piece, wire wrapped, soldered and, assembled from electrical components the (world's first?) working microcomputer. Miles Gilbert, Paul Gilbert's brother, a graphic designer and draftsman, helped the fledgling company by designing the company's logo. Gates and Allen started writing the software. To test the software while the computer was being designed, Paul Allen wrote a computer program on WSU's IBM 360 that would emulate the 8008 microprocessor.

"The computer system was completed and Traf-O-Data produced a few thousand dollars of revenue. Later the State of Washington offered free traffic processing services to cities, ending the need for private contractors, and all three principals moved on to other projects. The real contribution of Traf-O-Data was the experience that Gates and Allen gained developing software for computer hardware that did not exist. Paul Gilbert, sometimes referred to as "the hardware guy", was the man who made Traf-O-Data work. Without his efforts in the construction of this computer, and the day-to-day running of this pioneering company, the rise of what became Microsoft might have been delayed" (Wikipedia article on Traf-O-Data, accessed 07-13-2011).

On April 4, 1975 Bill Gates and Paul Allen officially founded Micro-Soft (Microsoft) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with Gates as CEO. Allen invented the original  company name, "Micro-Soft."  The initial purpose of the company was to develop an implementation of the programming language BASIC for the MITS Altair personal computer. Revenues of the company totaled $16,005 by the end of 1976.

"Within a year, the hyphen was dropped, and on November 26, 1976, the trade name "Microsoft" was registered with the Office of the Secretary of the State of New Mexico." (Wikipedia article on Bill Gates, accessed 07-13-2011).

Early in 1975 Gates, Allen, and Monte Davidoff wrote a version of the Basic programming language that ran on the MITS Altair 8800.

"After reading the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics that demonstrated the Altair 8800, Gates contacted Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), the creators of the new microcomputer, to inform them that he and others were working on a BASIC interpreter for the platform. In reality, Gates and Allen did not have an Altair and had not written code for it; they merely wanted to gauge MITS's interest. MITS president Ed Roberts agreed to meet them for a demo, and over the course of a few weeks they developed an Altair emulator that ran on a minicomputer, and then the BASIC interpreter. The demonstration, held at MITS's offices in Albuquerque, was a success and resulted in a deal with MITS to distribute the interpreter as Altair BASIC." (Wikipedia article on Bill Gates, accessed 07-13-2011).

Called Altair Basic, or in its first iteration, MITS 4K Basic, the program was written without access to an Altair computer or even an 8080 CPU. Altair Basic was the first computer language written for a personal computer, and the first product of "Micro-Soft," which in 1976 was renamed Microsoft.

On February 3, 1976 Gates, in his role as "General Partner Micro-Soft", Albuquerque, New Mexico, wrote An Open Letter to Hobbyists, making the distinction between proprietary and open-source software.

Gates's one page letter was first pubished in Computer Notes1, #9 (February 1976). Computer Notes was the house journal of MITS, the company that developed the MITS Altair 8800 and licensed Micro-Soft's version of BASIC.

In December 1980 IBM hired Paul Allen and Bill Gates of Microsoft, then in Bellevue, Washington, to create an operating system (OS) for the new IBM personal computer under development.

Because Microsoft had no OS at the time, they purchased a non-exclusive license to sell a CP/M clone called QDOS ("Quick and Dirty Operating System") from Tim Patterson of Seattle Computer Products for $25,000.

In September 1983 Microsoft introduced Microsoft Word 1.0 for MS-DOS. This was the first word processor to make extensive use of the computer mouse.

On November 20, 1985 Microsoft introduced Windows 1.0 for the PC. Rather than a completely new operating system, Windows 1.0 was a graphical user interface (GUI) multi-tasking operating environment extension of MS-DOS.

My thanks to Chris Morgan for drawing my attention to Gates and Allen's early experience with Traf-O-Data.

(This entry was last revised on 01-18-2015.)

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The First Word Processing Program for a Personal Computer 1976

In 1976 semi-retired filmmaker and Altair programmer Michael Shrayer wrote The Electric Pencil Word Processor, the first word processing program for a personal computer.

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The First CRT Based Word Processor June 1976

In June 1976 Wang Laboratories, Tewksbury, Massachusetts, introduced the first CRT based word processor, the Wang WPS.

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1980 – 1990

Origins of the Smiley on the Internet September 19, 1982

On September 19, 1982 American computer scientist Scott E. Fahlman of Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, suggested on a bulletin board that the emoticons (emoticon)

:-) and :- (

be used to express emotion on the Internet. The text of his original proposal, posted to the Carnegie Mellon University computer science general board on 19 September 1982 (11:44), was thought to have been lost, but was recovered 20 years later by Jeff Baird from old backup tapes:

19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman :-) From: Scott E Fahlman <Fahlman at Cmu-20c>

I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers: :-)

Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use


Other notable computer scientists who participated in this thread include David Touretzky, Guy Steele, and Jaime Carbonell. Within a few months, it had spread to the ARPANET and Usenet.

♦ You can view the original message and bulletin board thread at this link: http://www-2.cs.cmu.edu/~sef/Orig-Smiley.htm, accessed 08-18-2013.

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The Earliest Fictional Treatment of Word Processing by a Prominent Literary Author January 1983

A short story by American novelist, short story writer, screenwriter, columnist, actor, television producer, film director Stephen King published in the January 1983 issue of Playboy Magazine, under the title of "The Word Processor", may be the earliest fictional treatment of word processing by a prominent literary author. This story, which King wrote on a Wang dedicated word processing microcomputer known as the Wang System 5, was later retitled "Word Processor of the Gods."

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The First Gateways Between Private E-Mail Carriers and the Internet 1989

The first gateways between private e-mail carriers and the Internet were established in 1989. CompuServe was connected through Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, MCI in Auburn, Virginia, through the Corporation for National Research Initiatives.

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1990 – 2000

The Unicode Standard 1.0 is Published October 1991

The first volume of the Unicode standard 1.0 was published by the Unicode Consortium, Mountain View, California in October 1991.

"Unicode is a computing industry standard allowing computers to consistently represent and manipulate text expressed in most of the world's writing systems. Developed in tandem with the Universal Character Set standard and published in book form as The Unicode Standard, the latest version [5.2, 2009] of Unicode consists of a repertoire of more than 107,000 characters covering 90 scripts [including Egyptian hieroglyphs] a set of code charts for visual reference, an encoding methodology and set of standard character encodings, an enumeration of character properties such as upper and lower case, a set of reference data computer files, and a number of related items, such as character properties, rules for normalization, decomposition, collation, rendering, and bidirectional display order (for the correct display of text containing both right-to-left scripts, such as Arabic or Hebrew, and left-to-right scripts) " (Wikipedia article on Unicode, accessed 01-29-2010).

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1996: The First Year in Which More Email is Sent than Paper Mail 1996

1996 was the first year in which more email was sent than paper mail in the United States.

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Speech Recognition Technology from 6,700 Characters 1996

In 1996 IBM introduced continuous speech recognition technology for Mandarin Chinese. In developing the product, researchers identified and classified thousand of vocal tones and homonyms, created an algorithm that deconstructed syllables into parts, and developed a new language model to transform spoken words into the right combination drawn from 6,700 Chinese characters.

IBM also announced software that gave people a hands-free way to dictate text and navigate the desktop with the power of natural speech.

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The Average Person Receives 733 Pieces of Paper Mail Each Year, Half of Which is Junk 1998

In 1998 the average person received 733 pieces of mail on paper per year, half of which was junk mail.

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"You've Got Mail", a Movie about Love, Email, and the Book Trade 1998

You've Got Mail, an American romantic comedy film set in New York City starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, was released by Warner Brothers in 1998. The film dramatized a romantic relationship that develops over email, featuring AOL's "You've got mail" slogan in product placement. Paralleling this film about computers and society was the film's subplot of the forced closure of a small independent bookshop by competition from a big-box chain bookstore — thus You've Got Mail was not only a film about computers and romance, but also a commentary about the changing face of the book trade.

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2000 – 2005

High Density Rosetta Archival Preservation Technology 2001

"NanoRosetta archival preservation technology utilizes unique microscopic processes to provide analog and / or digital data, including information as text, line illustrations, or photos on nickel plates. Density can be as high as 50,000 pages per plate."

In 2001 Norsam Technologies, Santa Fe, New Mexico, developed High Density Rosetta (HD-Rosetta) archival preservation technology, which "uses unique microscopic processes to provide analog and/or digital data, information or pictures on nickel plates." Density could be 20 times that of microfilm/microfiche. 

196,000 pages of text could be etched with an electron microscope on a two square-inch plate. 

"Benefits of the HD-ROSETTA Nickel Tablet System:

"Few environmental controls required

"Immune to technology obsolescence

"High temperature tolerance

"Immune to water damage

"Unaffected by electromagnetic radiation

"Highly durable over long periods of time."

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Over 500,000 Egyptian Papyri Survive 2002

In spite of the immense loss of information over the centuries, in 2002 there were about 45,000 Egyptian papyri, including fragments, in six institutional libraries and museums in the United States. (Athena Review, 2, no. 2). The main U.S. holders of papyri were Duke University, University of California at Berkeley, University of Michigan, Columbia, Yale, and Princeton. It was estimated that there are about 500,000 unpublished papyri preserved elsewhere. Other major institutional collections of papyri were the University of Heidelberg, University of Oxford, University of Lecce, and the University of Copenhagen.

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8,000,000 U.S. Blogs November 2004

The Pew Internet and American Life Project logo

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, by November 2004 8,000,000 American adults said they had created blogs.

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2005 – 2010

Making Handwritten Manuscripts Searchable February 9, 2006

Professor Alan Smeaton of DCU, who worked on the Google funded research project

Using object detection technology, in February 2006 researchers at the University of Buffalo, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the Adaptive Information Cluster at Dublin City University, in association with Google, developed software for scanning historical manuscripts in a way that recognized handwriting to make electronic texts of these manuscripts searchable.

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Google Apps are Introduced August 2006

The Google Apps logo, including a diagram of some of the applications offered

In August 2006 Google began introduction of web-based Google Apps productivity software.

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"The Document in the Digital Era" by Web-Footed September 2006

Le Document a la Lumiere du Numerique (The Document in the Digital Era) was published in print in September 2006 by a collaborating group of information researchers under the collective pseudonym of Roger T. Pedauque. The surname of the pseudonym meant "web-footed."

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In 2007 There Were 12,000,000 U.S. Blogs February 2007

The Pew Internet and American Life Project logo

The Pew Research Center logo

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a product of the PewResearch Center, Washington, D.C.,  in February 2007 about 12 million Americans maintained a blog.

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An Encyclopedia with More than Ten Million Articles October 27, 2008

In 2008 the Wikipedia attracted at least 684 million visitors annually. 

"There are more than 75,000 active contributors working on more than 10,000,000 articles in more than 250 languages. As of today, there are 2,603,373 articles in English; every day hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world make tens of thousands of edits and create thousands of new articles to enhance the knowledge held by the Wikipedia encyclopedia."

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Virtual Reunification of the Codex Sinaiticus July 6, 2009

"To mark the online launch of the reunited Codex Sinaiticus, the British Library is staging an exhibition, From Parchment to Pixel: The Virtual reunification of Codex Sinaiticus, which runs from Monday 6 July until Monday 7 September, 2009 in the Folio Society Gallery at the Library's St Pancras building. Visitors will be able to view a range of historic items and artefacts that tell the story of the Codex and its virtual reunification, along with spectacular interactive representations of the manuscript and a digital reconstruction of the changes to a specific page over the centuries. In addition, they will see on display in the Treasures Gallery, for the very first time, both volumes of Codex Sinaiticus held at the British Library.

"The virtual reunification of Codex Sinaiticus is the culmination of a four-year collaboration between the British Library, Leipzig University Library, the Monastery of St Catherine (Mount Sinai, Egypt), and the National Library of Russia (St Petersburg), each of which hold different parts of the physical manuscript.

"By bringing together the digitised pages online, the project will enable scholars worldwide to research in depth the Greek text, which is fully transcribed and cross-referenced, including the transcription of numerous revisions and corrections. It will also allow researchers into the history of the book as a physical object to examine in detail aspects of its fabric and manufacture: pages can be viewed either with standard light or with raking light which, by illuminating each page at an angle, highlights the physical texture and features of the parchment.

" 'The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the world's greatest written treasures,' said Dr Scot McKendrick, Head of Western Manuscripts at the British Library. “This 1600-year-old manuscript offers a window into the development of early Christianity and first-hand evidence of how the text of the bible was transmitted from generation to generation. The project has uncovered evidence that a fourth scribe – along with the three already recognised – worked on the text; the availability of the virtual manuscript for study by scholars around the world creates opportunities for collaborative research that would not have been possible just a few years ago.'

"The Codex Sinaiticus Project was launched in 2005, when a partnership agreement was signed by the four partner organisations that hold extant pages and fragments. A central objective of the project is the publication of new research into the history of the Codex. Other key aims of the project were to undertake the preservation, digitisation and transcription of the Codex and thereby reunite the pages, which have been kept in separate locations for over 150 years.

"Professor David Parker from the University of Birmingham's Department of Theology, who directed the team funded by the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), which made the electronic transcription of the manuscript said: 'The process of deciphering and transcribing the fragile pages of an ancient text containing over 650,000 words is a huge challenge, which has taken nearly four years.

" 'The transcription includes pages of the Codex which were found in a blocked-off room at the Monastery of St Catherine in 1975, some of which were in poor condition,' added Professor Parker. 'This is the first time that they have been published. The digital images of the virtual manuscript show the beauty of the original and readers are even able to see the difference in handwriting between the different scribes who copied the text. We have even devised a unique alignment system which allows users to link the images with the transcription. This project has made a wonderful book accessible to a global audience.' To mark the successful completion of the project, the British Library is hosting an academic conference on 6-7 July 2009 entitled 'Codex Sinaiticus: text, Bible, book'. A number of leading experts will give presentations on the history, text, conservation, palaeography and codicology of the manuscript. See: http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/project/conference.aspx" http://www.artdaily.org/index.asp?int_sec=2&int_new=31895, accessed 07-07-2009)

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An Algorithm to Decipher Ancient Texts September 2, 2009

"Researchers in Israel say they have developed a computer program that can decipher previously unreadable ancient texts and possibly lead the way to a Google-like search engine for historical documents.

"The program uses a pattern recognition algorithm similar to those law enforcement agencies have adopted to identify and compare fingerprints.

"But in this case, the program identifies letters, words and even handwriting styles, saving historians and liturgists hours of sitting and studying each manuscript.

"By recognizing such patterns, the computer can recreate with high accuracy portions of texts that faded over time or even those written over by later scribes, said Itay Bar-Yosef, one of the researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

" 'The more texts the program analyses, the smarter and more accurate it gets,' Bar-Yosef said.

"The computer works with digital copies of the texts, assigning number values to each pixel of writing depending on how dark it is. It separates the writing from the background and then identifies individual lines, letters and words.

"It also analyses the handwriting and writing style, so it can 'fill in the blanks' of smeared or faded characters that are otherwise indiscernible, Bar-Yosef said.

"The team has focused their work on ancient Hebrew texts, but they say it can be used with other languages, as well. The team published its work, which is being further developed, most recently in the academic journal Pattern Recognition due out in December but already available online. A program for all academics could be ready in two years, Bar-Yosef said. And as libraries across the world move to digitize their collections, they say the program can drive an engine to search instantaneously any digital database of handwritten documents. Uri Ehrlich, an expert in ancient prayer texts who works with Bar-Yosef's team of computer scientists, said that with the help of the program, years of research could be done within a matter of minutes. 'When enough texts have been digitized, it will manage to combine fragments of books that have been scattered all over the world,' Ehrlich said" (http://www.reuters.com/article/newsOne/idUSTRE58141O20090902, accessed 09-02-2009).

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2010 – 2012

World Texting Competition is Won by Koreans January 14, 2010

The first LG Mobile Worldcup SMS texting championship took place in New York on January 14, 2010.

“ 'When others watch me texting, they think I’m not that fast and they can do better,' said Mr. Bae, 17, a high school dropout who dyes his hair a light chestnut color and is studying to be an opera singer.'So far, I’ve never lost a match.'

"In the New York competition he typed six characters a second. 'If I can think faster I can type faster,' he said.

"The inaugural Mobile World Cup, hosted by the South Korean cellphone maker LG Electronics, brought together two-person teams from 13 countries who had clinched their national titles by beating a tota